After the long COVID-19 winter, University of Southern Maine students heralded the opening of an outdoor patio at Brooks Dining Hall as a sweet-but-modest victory. For the first time in a year, students on the Gorham campus were encouraged to share dining tables.
Food Service Manager Kera Snyder delivers a boxed lunch to first-year Owen Gisa of Portland at the Taste of Normal barbecue on the newly reopened Brooks Dining Hall patio.
The limit was three students for each table.
“It seems like a little thing, but it’s not,” said Katey Caron, a third-year student. She smiled at her friends; second-year students Halle Farnsworth and Maia Derosear. “It’s not.”
The reopening of the patio has been coming for a while, said Tadd Stone, Sodexo’s general manager for USM. In 2019, only months before the pandemic began, Sodexo and USM completed a $2 million renovation of the dining hall. The work included a health-and-wellness kiosk, expanded seating and a gas-fired brick oven. The Brooks’ patio, which has been unused for several years, was the last piece of the project.
In recent weeks, it was completed. New pavers were installed on its floors. Picnic tables were brought out, and on March 11, with temperatures approaching 60 degrees, Sodexo brought out a large grill and hosted a barbecue with ribs and seitan kabobs, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread.
Fourth-year Sierra Steinhagen (right) dines with third-year Cullen McIntyre (left) at Sodexo's Taste of Normal barbecue on Wednesday, March 10.
It was all sweet for third-year student Cullen McIntyre and fourth-year Sierra Steinhagen. The friends are part of a larger group of students who have been coordinating mealtimes with a group chat. Working within the dining hall’s rules for social distancing — one person to each table — they had been collaborating to meet at the same time and occupy adjacent tables while awkwardly visiting with one another.
“You kind of shout to each other because you’re so far apart,” Steinhagen said.
Stone plans to open the patio this spring as often as the weather permits. He also has plans to replace the picnic tables with umbrella-equipped patio furniture and additional seats to accommodate as many as 100 people, once COVID restrictions are lifted.