For the first three weeks of the academic year, Sharples, the only dining hall on campus, was closed to everything but take-out, and the Matchbox Fitness center wasn’t open at all. On Monday, September 21, both facilities were opened once again, but with safety regulations in place to continue the practice of social distancing.
In order to protect all who pass through, Sharples policy dictates that social distancing guidelines be followed while standing in line and requesting food, dessert, and condiments, and that students make reservations through the G.E.T. app before arriving at Sharples. These are only the regulations that are easy to see; the safety measures are actually much more comprehensive. The measures in place include not only the rules given to students, but also the actual journey through Sharples to obtain food. All personnel are required to wear masks and gloves, and plexiglass separates the students and serving staff. Tables have been spread out and distanced, with two chairs each, and it is recommended that students dine with someone whom they are familiar to avoid a potential virus outbreak. Wooden blocks on the tables signify the table’s cleanliness — white means clean and sanitised, while red means that a table is awaiting sanitization. Before they leave, students are required to flip these blocks themselves; a block left unflipped could mean that the next students are eating on dirty tables. All of this is an enormous change from last year’s set up: long tables and more than 50 percent more chairs available for seating.
According to Linda McDougall, the dining services director, staff were given special protective equipment, tested weekly, and are still checked for symptoms daily. Social distancing dots on the floor where food is served and arrows by the drink dispensers limit collisions between students and staff, and the building is sanitized between each meal served.
In an email to The Phoenix, McDougall said that there were many factors that went into the decision of both how and when to open Sharples.
“We spent most of the summer months meeting and developing a plan for how to best open Sharples and our other food outlets safely. These discussions were with several cohorts across campus including Facilities, EVS, the health center, and senior management. These plans were also shared with the Board of Managers,” she wrote.
“We collaborated via Zoom sessions organized by the National Association of College and University Food Service (NACUFS) as well as with the CDC’s guidelines, and other professional organizations where best practices were developed for reopening safely.”
Though Sharples is no longer permitted to be a social meeting space, students still find ways to spend time together while enjoying their meals. Students, such as Ryan Rodriguez ʼ24, find eating at Sharples to be a nice break from talking through masks, even through the hustle and bustle of the dining hall and the equally loud conversations of others around them.
“It helps that in between eating we have our masks off, so sounds aren’t muffled,” he said about connecting with friends while eating.
Jorge Lopez-Nava ʼ23 and his friends often sit at tables close to each other so they can stay distant, yet still engage in conversation. Making new friends, however, Lopez-Nava says, is much more difficult.
“In terms of socializing with new people in Sharples, I feel like that’s harder to do now because most people go in with groups; not many are alone. And even those who are alone, you’re not necessarily sure what their opinions on social interactions are,” he said.
Another change Lopez-Nava noted was the portion sizes.
“Depending on the day, and depending on the server, I feel like the portions have changed… in the past it used to be buffet-style, and you could go back and forth as may times as you wanted but now they’re limiting it to one tray so for some people that can be a little inconvenient because they might not be getting enough food. … Sometimes, depending on who is serving…they just keep scooping food and I feel bad for not finishing it.”
Though both Rodriguez and Lopez-Nava agree that they feel safe eating at Sharples, it is important to note that if people become careless, it could be a hotspot for the spread of COVID.
The staff at Sharples do everything they can to prevent a possible surge in COVID cases. According to the dining staff, the students have done their parts so far in staying socially distant and wearing masks, creating an overall feeling of safety, and McDougall said they are unafraid to call out anyone who isn’t.
Also on September 21, the Matchbox Fitness Center reopened its doors to both sports teams and casual gym goers, albeit with steps taken to ensure safety. A reservation system, also through the G.E.T. app, allows students to make a reservation and reserve a time slot in which they can use the available facilities.
Before entering the gym, students must complete the Swarthmore College Daily Health Survey, available through the LiveSafe App, and their temperature is checked at the desk upon entering. In the facility, students are required to wear masks, social distance, and clean the athletic equipment before and after using it. Max Miller, the assistant athletics director for recreation and wellness, said the gym staff monitors those in the facility in order to be sure that every person is complying with the safety measures.
According to Daniel Torres Balauro ʼ23, the Matchbox has changed slightly since the COVID restrictions. “… there are certain equipment that are not to be used in order to maintain social-distance protocols,” Balauro noted.
He mentioned also that there are fewer people going to the gym than there were last semester. Nataly Rodriguez ʼ24, a lacrosse player and frequenter of the Matchbox, said that the worst part about the safety features is the reservation system.
“Definitely the fact that we can only be in the gym for an hour [affects workout routines],” she said.
Though the system keeps track of the people in the gym, it becomes difficult to fit an entire routine in a strict time frame. Balauro agrees; the ability to stop by the gym whenever he has extra time is no longer possible. Both students, however, do believe that it is all worth it. All students wear masks and properly sanitize the equipment, and though a mask might be a nuisance when working out, it is a fair trade in order to stay safe.