After a few weeks into the fall semester and higher education continues to adapt and pivot as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers throughout the country. At the University of Florida, the J. Wayne Reitz Union has remained open gradually reincorporated in-person services through the 2020 spring, summer, and fall semesters, facing unique challenges every day.
The Bulletin interviewed Reitz Union director Mike Mironack and associate director Jessica Inman to learn how the union has succeeded in remaining open while maintaining health and safety standards and providing flexible services to students.
What are the notable successes with respect to the Reitz Union staying open?
Mironack: During the pandemic, the Reitz Union never closed and remained open to
serve our community. We shortened our operating hours and much of the services available, but we remained open throughout the spring and summer. Because we stayed open, we were early adopters for enhanced cleaning methods. We quickly adjusted our focus to increase frequency of high-touch areas and restrooms, increase the number of hand sanitizer stations in public areas, and purchase electrostatic disinfectant sprayers.
Our department was tasked with purchasing materials for and the assembly of 50,000 Gator Care Kits—a string bag with two cloth masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, first aid kit, tissues, and a stylus pen. These were made available to every UF student. I don’t think anyone anticipated how much space it would take to store all of this material or how long it would take to put all the kits together, but with the help of many volunteers, we made it work. Other departments within Student Affairs have been assisting with distribution of the kits at high traffic areas around campus.
Inman: As we prepared to expand services for the fall semester, our team was able to create pandemic specific-training for all of our student employees. Before returning to work, our employees attended a training that covered COVID-19, opening plans for the university, Reitz Union policies, and expectations for the team. This training helped equip our team with the appropriate skills to encourage the standards for keeping our community healthy.
Mironack posted to the ACUI communities member forum about the food loophole in mask policies. Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing with that loophole and how you’ve addressed issues with it?
Mironack: We are still offering a variety of food services in our facility, including Starbucks. We’ve noticed a lot of people with their masks off, and when we ask them to put their masks on, they say they’re drinking their beverage. Our impression is that they’re slowly sipping so they have an excuse not to wear the mask. We have our building supervisors do regular walkarounds looking for mask and distancing compliance. We’ve started using the phrase, “Unless you are eating a meal, you must wear your mask—beverages don’t count as a meal.” We’re also looking at signage with stronger, more direct wording.
What other challenges have you encountered?
Mironack: Our community is struggling a bit with fully understanding “physical distancing.” We’ve rearranged our furniture to provide proper spacing, but individuals routinely move them back into small groupings that are too close. We have one seat per table in our food court, but every day we see groups of four or more at a single table, closer than outlined in our guidelines, eating and talking without masks.
Inman: Many students are using the Reitz Union as a study location to get out of their apartments and residence halls, meaning they are spending significant amounts of time in our facility. This is where we run into some of the challenges with distancing and furniture movement. Students are craving the interactions with one another, but are really struggling to understand how to interact from an appropriate distance.
How have you adjusted in-person operations in areas such as dining halls, the book store, the hotel, or events like student fairs?
Mironack: Everything has changed. We have limited seating, long queues with spacing at food lines, travel lanes through the bookstore, and acrylic barriers at all counters. We have very limited seating in meeting spaces and have lengthy requirements for organizations wanting to have events on campus. We’ve erected a very large tent outdoors to provide additional space for events.
Inman: Many of our internal spaces have made adjustments as well, including some services by appointment and some items available as grab-and-go or pick-up. We have also reduced capacities in spaces like our meeting rooms and Game Room. Most large events have moved to virtual formats such as involvement fairs, speakers, and concerts. Our Event Services team is working closely with all event organizers wishing to do in-person events to make sure they are following guidelines and have access to appropriate resources.
Are you still offering virtual events and opportunities? If so, what do those look like?
Inman: Yes, we have quite a few offerings that are available virtually. Many events and programs can be found on our virtual union website. Most programs require preregistration and UF authentication in order to access programs. For example, our Arts and Crafts Center is offering virtual social events where students and student organizations can pick up supplies, distribute them, and host a virtual interaction at a specific time. Additionally, the Arts and Crafts Center is offering virtual workshops that include paper crafts, hand-built ceramics, and other offerings.
How are students responding to the changes so far?
Mironack: Response has been very positive. Many students are utilizing the space to watch class lectures, take notes, and study. Most are complying with the updated policies such as masks, face coverings, and physical distancing. There are still many students not on campus or studying elsewhere, so traffic is much lower than we typically see, but it remains steady.
What plans does the Reitz Union have for continued reopening efforts for the remaining fall semester and beyond?
Mironack: We are monitoring the situation daily and we have committed to evolving throughout the semester to match our campus needs. The health and safety of our staff, students, and visitors remains paramount, and we will continue to follow guidance from the University of Florida and Alachua County.