As University of Virginia students settle into daily life, University students and leaders are working with merchants on the Corner to help keep everyone healthy.
The University is erecting a 40-by-50-foot tent over 11 picnic tables in the grassy area between the Corner and the Old Medical School building , plus another nine open-air picnic tables near Brooks Hall, where students can eat takeout food purchased from Corner restaurants.
The University also has assembled kits with safety messaging – posters, coasters and signs – encouraging masking and physical distancing and specifying maximum capacity for indoor and outdoor space as an outreach to Corner merchants.
“Some of these are similar to the ones set up in University spaces and that are being made by Facilities Management,” said Julie Caruccio, assistant vice president and associate dean of students, who worked with students in implementing the process. “The other set has #YOUVa social media campaign messaging developed by the student intern groups over the summer.”
The University is also providing hand sanitizer dispensers for merchants to mount at their entrances, as well as working with Corner merchants to set up safe distancing inside and outside establishments.
“We were already thinking about putting up tents in other places around the University to expand spaces open for students,” Caruccio said. “We are acutely aware that one of the areas that supports students is Newcomb Hall. With the closing of Alderman Library and with the reduced density everywhere, students are not going to have a place to go to do their work, study, sit in Zoom classes, all that kind of stuff, other than their apartments.”
“The Corner restaurants and merchants have a long connection with the University,” said Allen Groves, associate vice president and University dean of students. “Like many small businesses, they have felt the impact of COVID-19 disproportionally. These businesses also employ many local residents and students and are an important part of the local economy.”
These steps have grown from a student-launched effort through the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership, a multi-year fellowship that prepares students for a lifetime of leadership, and L2K, a UVA leadership development program. The students worked through the summer on this project.
Caruccio said the students were acutely conscious of what was involved.
“First and foremost, they were really aware that the behavior of students was going to have an impact on the broader Charlottesville community,” she said, “so all of the recommendations they made for dealing with the pandemic took into account the very dramatic effect the students could have on the local community, both positive and negative.”
“We met with the Corner merchants and gathered data on their needs as well as any concerns they had,” said Darynha Gnep, a fourth-year student in the Curry School of Education and Human Development. “Together we did a walkthrough of the Corner to identify areas where we were should put up safety hubs – hand sanitizing stations with disposable masks – that had heavier foot traffic.”
Gnep, a self-described planner, said the process has taught him to be more flexible and how complex the chain of command at the University is.
Caruccio said the Corner merchants have been receptive to the University’s outreach.
“We did a lot of listening in the first couple of meetings,” she said. “We … then shifted to what can we do to meet our collaborative goal, which is a safe way of patronizing those businesses in ways that do not spread the pandemic, fit the University’s ideals and values, and support the businesses and their ability to function as much as possible.”
Gnep and Caruccio said University staff such as Caruccio; Tia Lynn Mann, the associate director of the Office of Health Promotion; and Carolyn Dillard, a community liaison with the provost’s office, worked in support of the students.
Gnep, an L2K intern and part of the community outreach group tasked with identifying those landing spaces and safety hubs, said the process was a way to develop better relations between students and the Corner merchants.
“My philosophy going into this was to build community. It seemed as if there are two places: Grounds, and this whole other community called the Corner,” Gnep said. “But the reality is that they are only separated by about 10 feet of University Avenue. Even so, these places are not only where people physically are, but where a community exists beyond UVA students, a community that we have to include in the larger conversation around not only student safety, but the communal safety.”