A look inside the reopened Michigan Union

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 - 9:20am

As the Michigan Union reopened Monday morning for the second time this calendar year, University of Michigan alumni Isabel Williams, Amanda Wasserman and Lucy Rosenthal stopped to say goodbye. The trio, who met their freshman year, roamed the silent, empty halls, reminiscing on game days and late-night food runs together one last time before their senior year housing lease ends later this week.

“It’s definitely very sad looking not seeing everyone else running around here,” Rosenthal said. “I think everyone was so excited to explore the new spaces and see what this building had to offer, because they put so much time and money into making this a great place for student events.”

When the Union opened its doors Jan. 13 after a two-year, $85 million renovation, students were greeted with a 500-person line, food trucks and a ceremony with a speech from University President Mark Schlissel.

That same day, a woman in Thailand was hospitalized with a “novel pneumonia virus” — the first known COVID-19 case outside China. The century-old building, where John F. Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps and Martin Luther King Jr. met with student leaders, closed its doors only three months later. When students come back to campus in the coming weeks, physical distancing and face covering requirements will be in place. The contrast between the Union’s reopenings strikes Rosenthal. 

“It could not be more different,” Rosenthal said.

Thinking back to simpler times, Williams passed by the old Sweetwaters location and remembered milestones of her four years in Ann Arbor.

“I was like, this is where I had this meeting, and this is where I booked that flight, and this is where I studied for that test,” Williams said.  

Yet as Wasserman scanned the one-person tables and spread apart chairs in the north study room, she worried about incoming students getting the same college experience they had. 

“Even studying wise, like going somewhere to study with a bunch of friends or getting a study room, I don’t know how that’s gonna work anymore,” Wasserman said. 

Williams said there’s an added level of fear every time a student goes to a public place.

“It’s like is this actually safe?” Williams said. “Should I be doing this? It’s sad and it’s a stress that they shouldn’t have to deal with … I don’t know how I would balance it. I’m so glad I don’t have to make that decision.”

LSA sophomore Madeleine Lynch is one of tens of thousands of students who will have to make those decisions shortly. She stood in the north study room Monday morning, impressed with the safety precautions.  

“I think they’re doing a pretty good job keeping everything safe,” Lynch said. “I’ve seen all the one-way signs and I used some Purell that was around there. I liked the way it was all over the place. I noticed there’s only like three people at each of these tables, and it seems like it’ll be a pretty good space. I’d feel safe studying here.”

Lynch is hopeful for a good year despite the circumstances. 

“I'm still hoping for a pretty good experience, even though you have to stay far away from other people,” Lynch said. “I’m hoping it's still gonna be a meaningful experience.” 

A floor below, Blue Market manager Ann Heiden said many students over the years sign up for their first job at the basement retailer freshman year and keep punching in until graduation.   

“It becomes a family,” Heiden said. “You work with these people — it’s just beautiful.”

Heiden said she’s looking forward to some sort of normalcy with the Union’s reopening, but most of all, she wants to see her students again. 

“I think it’s just going to be refreshing,” Heiden said. “Just because it looks different doesn’t make it bad.”

Back up in the north study room, LSA junior Sujin Kim and LSA senior Sean McGuire settled into a corner table with bookbags and laptops. Mostly, they said they’re happy to find somewhere else to work besides their apartments, where their productivity lagged all summer.

“There is something to be said for the community sense that comes from being in a University space,” Kim said. “It’s just a nice reminder as to like yes, this is the institution that you go to, and you’re not doing this by yourself, and there’s greater implications or forces at play here than you and your recorded lecture. It gives you a little bit more perspective.”

McGuire emphasized the need for students to sacrifice short-term fun in the fall in pursuit of long-term objectives like keeping campus open, with some sarcasm implied.

“I would do very, very, many, many bad things to have a study space that is not my apartment,” McGuire said. “Multiple felonies would be committed if necessary to allow me to go to one of those Hatcher boxes again and just sit in the stacks for hours on end.”

Kim concurred, slightly more subtly.

“Maybe I do have a renewed appreciation for this kind of thing than I did before this thing,” Kim said.

Custodian Andrew Chavez wheeled a big yellow cart of cleaning supplies around the Union basement Monday morning, armed with plenty of disinfectant. He’s worked in the Union since preparation began for the first reopening in December.

“It’s a lot different because of the six feet and the cleanliness and the whole pandemic kind of made things strange,” Chavez said. 

As the workday approached, Chavez greeted people who wore dress clothes and badges and who presumably made important decisions. Upstairs, McGuire said the fate of the fall semester isn’t in those people’s hands. 

“As much as they can do it correctly, it is ultimately going to fall on the brains of a bunch of 18 to 22-year-olds,” McGuire said. 

Chavez was doing all he could. He cleaned the floors and the glass. He cleaned common touchpoints like door handles. He even cleaned the elevator buttons that those dressed-up people pressed as they headed upstairs to discuss what they should do with places like the Union — these old buildings people love enough to walk around empty on a Monday morning.

“I hope it feels comfortable enough and safe enough for people to enjoy the Union still,” Chavez said. “Time will still tell.”

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.