As part of its loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, Lehigh is currently testing whether the dining halls are a source of exposure. In-person dining facilities have reopened on a trial basis between March 15 and March 17. (Papa Kofi Asibuo/B&W Staff)

In-person dining returns at Lehigh on a trial basis

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In working to safely loosen some COVID-19 restrictions, Lehigh has re-opened in-person dining facilities on a trial basis between March 15 and March 17. 

The goal of opening for three days is to test whether or not the dining halls are a source of exposure. A March 5 email from the COVID-19 Response Team explained how the trial period will help to evaluate if dining halls can continue with an in-person component. 

“We will implement increased testing in the residential student population following this timeframe to determine if we can continue the resumption of in-person dining options,” the email said. “This will be dependent on maintaining low positivity rates from this testing.” 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines state that indoor dining can only operate at 50 percent capacity. Lehigh will follow this and monitor the number of students entering the dining facilities. 

University Architect Brent Stringfellow, a member of the COVID-19 response team,  said in an email exchange that reopening dining is trickier than other activities. 

“The resumption of in-person dining is occurring slightly later than the resumption of other activities in a large part because masks cannot be worn, which is shown to be the most effective mitigation strategy,” Stringfellow said.

Dining halls will have hand sanitizing stations, plexiglass partitions, limited seating and distancing requirements while in line. The option for take out will continue to be available for those who do not feel comfortable with in-person dining. 

David Joseph, executive director of Student Auxiliary Services at Lehigh, said although there is always a potential of getting sick when eating in the dining facilities, COVID-19 presents more risk than before. Despite this, Joseph said they have taken many steps to ensure dining at Lehigh is as safe as it can be.  

Joseph said he wants everyone to understand the health and safety of students and staff is of the utmost priority.

“Even back before COVID, I’d go up in the dining hall and walk right in and watch a student sneeze in front of the food,” Joseph said. “Now, we obviously have sneeze guards in front of there and shields and different things, but I don’t know if students get the whole safety thing.”

Arielle Kutler, ’24, said she is excited to return to indoor dining so she can see more people aside from just her pod. 

Kutler said she is not concerned about possible exposure from indoor dining, but understands why staff members may be worried.  

She said there was some difficulty with last semester’s in-person dining protocols.

“I remember I would be yelled at for not standing six feet apart, but I didn’t know where to stand,” Kutler said. “There wasn’t really clear places. So, hopefully they will make it easier for students to follow rules and not just expect students to know what to do exactly.”

Victor Cochrane, ‘22, vice president of communications for Student Senate, said it has been an uphill battle to try and get the campus open in a safe manner because of the many complications. He said the Senate has been advocating for loosening restrictions for a while. 

Cochrane said he believes in-person dining will help students, particularly first-years, branch outside of their friends from first semester in a more casual setting.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Cochrane said. “Maybe I’m an optimist but I’m very much hoping that the contact and possible exposure to people will be minimal.” 

According to a March 11 email from the COVID-19 Response Team, the plan is to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of the in-person dining plan and to look to reopening more consistently. 

Dining halls that will be open during the trial phase include Brodhead, Rathbone, Lower Cort Dining Room, Food Court in the University Center, Baker’s Junction, Clutch and Go, the Füd in front of Fairchild-Martindale Library and the vending machines in Hillside Cafe in Hitch House. 

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