Creating Experiences for a Lifetime during a Pandemic
In March 2020, many of us felt like our world turned upside down. Businesses in Madison began to close, organizations canceled events, and many of us found ourselves isolated from the people, places and experiences we know and that make up our routines and fun.
We, at the Wisconsin Union, wrestled with seemingly endless questions. How would our organization, with a tradition of creating experiences, continue to build community and provide events and activities? How would we continue to support learning, growth and leadership opportunities? How could we, as an organization operating without taxpayer dollars, sustain ourselves, so that we could continue to make a difference and serve as a destination in Madison?
Even before news of campus altering operations in March 2020, as a team, we began discussing these questions as we heard news of COVID-19 cases occurring in our community. The overarching answer to our many questions quickly became clear to us: we simply could not stop serving campus, our members and guests, but we would need to do things differently. Thankfully, we are not short on creativity within our team.
Even as our doors briefly closed, our facilities team continued to maintain the buildings, and facilities leaders reviewed our building systems and structures in detail, consulting with health and safety specialists, to ensure that team members and patrons could return to our buildings with confidence. Our lights never fully turned off, and our work never stopped.
We re-examined traffic flow patterns, how lines form throughout our buildings, food preparation procedures, ordering practices, seating arrangements, air handling systems, cleaning procedures, additional employee training needs, and more to ensure the safest possible experiences.
After detailed studying, we went to work to implement some changes. We removed some tables and chairs to ensure physical distancing and reduced the number of chairs at our large tables. We placed decals on our floors to aid in physical distancing where lines often form. We installed kiosks to allow for contactless ordering at some dining locations. We also launched a food and beverage delivery system within one-mile radiuses of Memorial Union and Union South. We also created hundreds of virtual events and activities to virtually close the geographical gaps between us.
We worked day and night for the time we could welcome guests to our spaces. The first opportunity to do so came when we started the 2020 Terrace season in June. Beginning that month, we welcomed members and guests to visit our iconic outdoor dining space, called the Memorial Union Terrace. Rather than our usual first come, first served seating, we established a reservation system to manage capacity and enable physical distancing, invested in a food and ordering system to limit contact, installed hand sanitizing stations throughout the Terrace, required that all team members and guests wear face masks when not eating or drinking, and ensured each dining area was cleaned between reservations.
In every way we could, we aimed to create a Terrace season that offered respite and a sense of normalcy in a stressful, bizarre time. We treasured each message from members and guests expressing gratitude for this bit of a usual Madison summer and the feedback that helped us continually improve our services.
As Wisconsin Union Deputy Director Susan Dibbell said in a past Terrace Views story, “There’s no playbook for this, but our staff have done an amazing job thinking outside the box, and the opening of the Terrace this past summer is a great example.”
Then, in fall 2020, we welcomed campus community members back to our buildings. They graciously and quickly adjusted to our operations changes, such as physically distanced seating and lines, an increase in the frequency of dining and study spaces cleaning, smaller capacities, and a face mask requirement. And they have motivated us each day to give all that we have to making the most of our circumstances.
Some of our team members worked not only their usual roles but also helped out across campus with COVID-19-related administrative tasks, contact tracing, and other rapidly evolving needs at UW-Madison. Where help was needed, that’s where available staff went.
Things continue to evolve on campus with the latest change coming in the form of the Safer Badger program during the spring 2021 semester. Currently, access to campus buildings, including our buildings, is restricted by a campus-wide measure to provide additional COVID-19 protections for the campus community. To enter our buildings, campus community members must show a Badger Badge, which is only available to campus community members with current Wiscards, that shows “building access granted” status. The Badge status is determined based on regular, on-campus COVID-19 test results. Our team is once again going where we are needed for this program; our more than 200 staff members and many talented student team members are serving as Badger wellness ambassadors, who check Badger Badge statuses at buildings across campus. Our full-time staff continue to serve in usual roles, as well, creating experiences, fostering student leadership opportunities, maintaining our facilities, and providing dining services.
We are still planning every day for when we can welcome all back to our spaces. Our buildings are just not the same without all of our members and guests and our traditions, like our tailgate event Badger Bash and our concerts. Our members and guests, though, are what truly makes our spaces special; they bring life to the experiences and places we create. They have inspired us with their adaptability to our operations changes in summer 2020 and their patience and understanding as we navigate these times. We remain hopeful, dedicated and committed to serving our members and guests, no matter what challenges we face and no matter where they are.