On Aug. 17, a few days before classes started, a student posted a troubling photo to the “r/UTK” page on Reddit. The photo shows a long line of students crowding the stairwell in front of the entrance to Presidential Court Café, waiting to be let into the dining facility.
“This is the hallway I waited in to get my lunch at PCB today,” the caption read. “No way to socially distance with hundreds eating at the same time.”
This concern was echoed by hundreds of other students who spent their first days on campus shuffling through crowded dining facilities and waiting in serpentine lines to get their food, fearing that if they were to be exposed to COVID-19 anywhere on campus, it would be in a dining hall. Some, like myself, canceled their dining plans in exasperation.
But just nine days later, there was no line outside PCB at the height of the lunch rush hour and the problems that seemed to plague the dining facilities days earlier were seemingly gone.
The news of the stabilizing of the Vol Dining system comes as the “New York Times”recently reported UT’s number of positive coronavirus cases to be far below many other campuses around the nation.
As I spoke to several first-year students coming out of the dining hall, they gave various explanations for why the long lines they had waited in last week were now gone.
Cody Hunter thinks that photos such as the one posted to Reddit did not include the full context of the dining situation in the days before classes started, when PCB was the only place many students could go.
“I think it’s because PCB was really the only open option because a lot of the other places that were open were only taking dining dollars, and meal equivalency hadn’t started yet, and Southern Kitchen and Fresh Food Company weren’t open yet,” Hunter said.
Toni Brewer believes that freshmen, the only class that overwhelmingly uses inclusive dining plans, were still getting used to using the dining halls, and therefore caused the lines outside dining facilities to move more slowly.
“I think the main difference was a lot of people were still getting used to their Vol Card and trying to get into their email while at the door,” Brewer said.
Many students also credited the take-out system, which allows students to get a styrofoam box for their food so they can eat outside the dining hall, for cutting numbers down drastically within the facilities. Some students estimated that up to half of students have been consistently taking their food out of the dining hall.
As for whether students feel safe from COVID-19 while in the dining facilities, students reported that masks were being worn inside the buildings and that it was possible to socially distance from others.
Aliah Mahalati says that both staff and students seem to be taking enough precautions.
“I see people cleaning and I’m able to stay far enough away and I always have my Germ-X,” Mahalati said.
The only difficulty students still seem to be facing with Vol Dining is the somewhat convoluted reservation system through the GET app, which students must use in order to get into PCB, the Fresh Food Company and Southern Kitchen. At the entrance to PCB is posted a 17-step process for making a reservation on the app.
Brewer says that her only frustration is the timing of the reservation system, which doesn’t allow for much flexibility if students forget to make a reservation, or if their personal watch is a few minutes off.
“They should allow you to make a reservation for 8 p.m., like at least five minutes after 8 p.m.,” Brewer said. “I go to make a reservation and I’ll forget about it, and I’ll be like, ‘dang, it’s 7:03 p.m., I can’t make a reservation for 7 p.m. I have to wait a whole hour.’”
Though the reservation system may still require further tweaking for students to fully embrace it, the problem seems much more preferable to the fears over crowded, unmanageable spaces that worried students a little over a week ago.