Campus life during pandemic: No lunch rush at a less-busy Student Union

Lunchtime in the UWM Student Union used to be as bustling as the Summerfest grounds before the coronavirus led to changes at the university. It used to be difficult to find a table for one and nearly impossible to find one for a group. Students and faculty darted in and out of restaurant lines to grab a quick bite to eat, and posters promoting upcoming events and student groups filled the walls.

Now, most tables are open with one chair at each to distance guests. There is no lunch rush anymore, and only three venues serve food and drinks: Union Station, the Union Grind and the Flour Shop, which now offers select meals from each of the restaurants the Union normally hosts. Guests can place their orders using the UWM GET app and pick up their food shortly after to reduce time waiting in line.

With many offices closed or operating at a limited capacity, and with many classes now conducted online, the union sees fewer visitors.

“It’s deserted, almost,” said Jessie Reyes, a student in her third semester at UWM who comes to the union to do classwork. “There used to be posters everywhere, and now it’s empty.”

A place to study or work

Rick Thomas, director of the Student Union, said that 2,000 to 3,000 people enter the Union daily now, whereas the Union saw anywhere from 18,000 to 20,000 visitors a day in past semesters. Most of the crowd that now utilizes the union, he said, is students from residence halls or off campus who want a quiet place to study and students that have in-person classes who need a spot to do their work or log on to a virtual class.

“Running a student union during a pandemic forces us into a reality that is counterintuitive to what a student union is in its very DNA,” Thomas said. “A student union is about bringing people together, providing venues for people to come together for events and programs, providing space for students to come together to have conversation and relax. Everything about this pandemic makes that challenging and difficult.”

Even with these challenges, the Union continues to serve its community. The Wisconsin Room and the Union Ballroom, sites that normally hold large events, are serving as COVID-19 testing sites for UWM students and Milwaukee community members. Additionally, several offices, resource centers and operations in the union are still providing services for students physically or virtually, such as the Union Cinema, which offers streaming for its featured films.

Virtual Student Union

Students can also access the Virtual Student Union to chat with other students in discussion boards, get updates on virtual events at UWM and find information on centers around campus.

“What’s represented in the Virtual Student Union is everything that is in the union,” Thomas said. “It’s a portal to stay informed about what’s happening on campus both in person and virtually, and it’s a great place to connect to the services that are offered within the union.”

Students get announcements from the Virtual Student Union directly in their emails, which allows them to stay involved.

“I like to use the Virtual Student Union to stay up to date on events and programs,” said Emma Mae Webber, Student Association president at UWM. “I like that I get notifications for things happening virtually on campus.”

On campus, students can still visit their favorite spots, such as the Recreation Center and the Studio Arts and Craft Centre. At the Recreation Center, students, faculty and staff can compete in billiards, table tennis and bowling. Space is limited to help separate groups of four or fewer, according to the Recreation Center’s website. At the Studio Arts and Craft Centre, students can reserve a workspace in the studio or pick up a kit for the studio’s project of the week and create the project at home.

For more information on union hours and operations, visit the Student Union webpage.

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