Busy lines at The Commons make social distancing a challenge

Bon Appetit planning to launch app to battle congested lines

By Will Mulligan | February 2, 2021 12:26pm

The meal line extends into the quiet side of The Commons, a frequent occurrence during regular meal times.

Media Credit: Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Social distancing guidelines have become a familiar part of life during this pandemic, and though they can be inconvenient sometimes, they are necessary to keep people safe. But with 800 students living on campus this semester, the Commons has proven to be a challenging place to implement those regulations.

“When I got there, I was surprised to see that not everybody was social distancing,” junior Spanish and nursing major Grace Mariano said. “And I think mealtimes kind of worked out, at least from my perspective, it felt like everybody was there at once.”

In any given year, a busy Commons with long lines would be a simple, but familiar inconvenience. Now the din of conversation is muffled by masks and the clatter of plates and silverware is absent. With students living on campus again, and the Pilot House and the Anchor closed, the Commons is busier than ever. One long line winds around the quiet side of the Commons before splitting into four lines for different food stations.

“It usually gets crowded right after classes,” junior nursing major Danny Wrigley said.“For breakfast at eight, it's usually almost entirely empty, but if you were to go around, 9:15, or something like that, it would probably be really crowded.”

Arrows and dots are littered across The Commons floor to help students keep their distance.

by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Bon Appetit is launching an app in the next two weeks that will hopefully help alleviate the congestion. The app will allow students to order food remotely, then come to the Commons to pick it up.

Kirk Mustain, general manager for Bon Appetit says that in addition to giving students the option to order food remotely, the new app will also allow them to purchase grocery items for pick up including bread, lunch meat, cereal and eggs.

“It’s kind of a Mack’s Market but not as big,” Mustain said. “Mack’s had close to 800 items in it and this is going to have like 70. So we're really focusing on staples, things that you want for your room.”

According to Mustain, Bon Appetit planned to release a similar app last year, but ran into issues when the company they were working with went out of business. The whole development process had to be redone over the fall semester. Other Portland-area universities, like George Fox and Lewis and Clark, are successfully using similar apps as well.

“If we're trying to create a bubble here on campus, it doesn't help [if students] go into Freddie's to buy, you know, bread and milk,” Mustain added. “So, our main goal is to keep people safe right now.”

As the app isn’t out yet, students will have to deal with guidelines when they want to eat. There are dots on the floor marking out six feet, but some students still need reminding. Mustain has noticed this trend, but is hesitant to police students himself.

A mock-up of what the app might look like for students.

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Mustain

“For the most part, everybody is real receptive to it,” Mustain said. “You have to remind them, and we're really trying to encourage people to self monitor. Because really, I'm in charge of the food, I'm not in charge of where people stand. We're just trying to do the best for everybody and keep my staff safe also, because we're the ones that are interacting with 800 different people.”

It’s been a challenging year for Bon Appetit, who had to lay off over 200 employees in September. Fortunately, the increased need for student dining on campus has allowed the company to rehire some of those people.

“When it was announced that we were going to try in person classes, again this term, we were able to rehire about 40 of our previous staff members,” Mustain said. “So out of all of our re-hires they've all been former staff who've come back, which has been great.”

Bon Appetit is also looking into rehiring student employees to fill any potential gaps in their food service system.

“There's signage everywhere and hand sanitizer, and all of those kinds of things are in place right now to keep people safe, and really to try to get people a good meal, as fast as possible, and get them out of here so that you can go out safely and we can get through this,” Mustain said.

Will Mulligan is a reporter for the Beacon. He can be reached at mulligan22@up.edu.