Op-ed: Dining must meet the standards of NU’s COVID-19 response


Kelly Thomas

Students leave International Village Dining with “grab ’n go” meals.

Arjun Ramachandrula, contributor

When you walk into the busy Stetson East dining hall, you’re immediately struck by the social distancing precautions, with red circular tiles warning you to stay six feet apart, several panes of glass separating you from the staff and a general sense of quiet.

All of these precautions are necessary in a COVID-19-era dining hall, but the truth of the matter remains: Despite Northeastern’s premier response to COVID-19, the dining experience leaves a lot to be desired.

So what’s the problem? Northeastern is clearly doing a good job promoting safety; otherwise, our positive case numbers would look like Boston College’s. I commend the effort Northeastern dining is making to keep us safe and healthy. That being said, there are minor changes that can greatly improve the dining experience. 

Take Levine Marketplace, commonly known as Stetson East, for example, where students are immediately bombarded with an assortment of food. The constant stream of meandering people stutter-stepping from station to station shows the indecisiveness caused by the abundance of food selections in a concentrated area. But the order of the booths is any 2-year-old’s dream — after all, dessert always comes first!

After the bakery, students walk over to the refrigerators, where they have a choice of drinks, fruits and several other chilled foods. You’d think this is a COVID-safe self-service like Stetson West, but you’d be wrong. Instead, you cross your fingers and hope the staff understand that you’re pointing at the almond milk instead of the Lactaid. But remember, don’t grab too much all at once, or else you’ll have a tower of sliding food to lug all the way back to your dorm since there are no bags to carry your food.

A quick fix to this is mandating that every dining hall has brown paper bags, which is offered at Stetson West. When everybody is grabbing takeout, it just makes sense for bags to be universally offered to carry your food.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, don’t go to Stetson East for breakfast, because those options are only available for lunch and dinner. And even after you escape the cramped hallway, you’re faced with a difficult decision: Do you walk back into the main line, cutting the person already shooting daggers at you, or do you show chivalry and continue letting people go until there’s no one left in line? The issue here is that there isn’t a direct point of entry into the line again, so, like at every Boston intersection, there isn’t a clear set of rules for merging into traffic.

Furthermore, the current infrastructure of socially distanced lines is good, but it could be much more effective. During peak hours of traffic, there should be a way to bypass certain sections, like the “Eggs + Two” station for vegans and vegetarians. During dinner, the line is out the door, which wastes time and space. To make the setup safer, NU can simply rearrange some of the posts and create a small space to allow people to exit quicker, thus reducing density.

Overworked dining staff often can’t cover a station that isn’t theirs, and so Stetson East’s second fridge station is often not staffed. Don’t get any ideas about reaching over and helping yourself, though. That’s when everybody calls you out for violating social distancing — I know this from experience.

The easiest way to stop most of these problems is to increase the usage and efficiency of  online ordering dining halls. Similar processes on campus already take advantage of online reservations, such as exercising at Marino and flu vaccines, so this can easily be applied to dining.  Online ordering would reduce the capacity of students in line making it safer indoor experience. Although it will take some legwork in the beginning, it will pay off as the weather gets colder and more people will be indoors together. 

I appreciate Northeastern’s commitment to COVID-safe dining operations and online ordering. However, and understandably, a few kinks still need to be worked out, but fixing these issues will improve the dining hall situation in both experience and safety.

Arjun Ramachandrula is a first-year computer science and business administration combined major. He can be reached at [email protected].