EPFL’s campus comes back to life under strict hygiene measures

On Monday morning, the EPFL campus was slowly coming back to life. EPFL/Alain Herzog

On Monday morning, the EPFL campus was slowly coming back to life. EPFL/Alain Herzog

Starting today, Monday, 4 May, research activities will gradually resume on EPFL’s Lausanne campus and at its other sites across French-speaking Switzerland.

Weeds have started to grow in the Place Nord since EPFL went into lockdown on Friday, 13 March. The air inside the campus buildings smells like it’s been trapped in there for a while. And for seven weeks, coffee cups have been waiting on people’s desks to be washed, and prototypes and pipettes have idled in the labs. Around 1,200 staff members are now authorized to return to campus. While many are eager to get back to work, there’s also – understandably – some apprehension. But there will be no shortage of measures to protect people from the invisible coronavirus.

Throughout the lockdown, the Security, Prevention and Health Domain (DSPS) team – keeping one eye on the changing cantonal and federal directives – has been working hard to get the campus ready to reopen. The restart plan sets out the measures that have been or will be taken at all levels, down to the very last detail. It also allows for the measures to be adjusted as the public-health situation evolves. “We want people to feel confident about coming back to campus, but we also want to take things step by step so that we can assess whether the measures are the right ones, whether any changes need to be made and, ultimately, whether we can ease the restrictions,” sums up Eric Du Pasquier, who heads up the DSPS team.

A gradual return to campus

During this initial phase, only research teams needing access to lab facilities will be able to come back. They’ve had to draw up shift plans, since only around 35% of each team will be allowed on site at any one time. Starting now, there will be between 1,200 and 1,500 people on campus every day. And if all goes well, that number will increase to around 2,500 at the end of June. However, the School’s 9,000 Bachelor’s and Master’s students are still not allowed back on campus.

For those who will be coming back to their labs and desks, the message is clear: “Keep your distance and wash your hands regularly.” To make things easier, the DSPS team spent all of last week putting together welcome kits composed of eight face masks and one small bottle of hand sanitizer for each staff member. They also put up signs on every door to remind people of the public-health measures, provided catering outlets with floor-marking materials, and made sure that all buildings are thoroughly cleaned and all door handles, ramps, rails and Camipro booths disinfected. “That way, we know we’re starting off on the right foot,” says Du Pasquier.

Drastic hygiene measures

The DSPS team isn’t compromising when it comes to staff members’ health. Early on in the lockdown, EPFL donated some 60,000 surgical masks to health care workers. But it has now acquired a further 150,000 and is expecting another 100,000 to be delivered this week – all of them made in China. Around 80 hand sanitizer dispensers have been set up at strategic locations across campus. “As staff members gradually return to campus, we’ll get a better idea of the logistics in terms of cleaning facilities and providing disinfectant, soap, paper, etc.” says Du Pasquier.

Running catering points like clockwork

The aim is to reassure people by providing facemasks without making them compulsory. But drastic hygiene measures will be needed to safeguard people’s health. These measures have had the biggest impact on the School’s catering points – they’ve had to be totally reorganized, just like airport security was after 9/11. Providing food is an essential task, so some ten catering points will reopen on the Lausanne campus and one at EPFL’s site in Geneva. But lunch breaks won’t be the same as they were before March 2020. Priority will be given to takeout food, there’ll be no buffet service, and choice will be limited. There won’t be many places for people to sit, there’ll be markings on the floor, and payments will be by card or Camipro only. Catering staff will wear gloves and facemasks and be separated from their customers by a Plexiglas screen and a visor. Customers will be asked to keep their distance, to not touch anything, and to follow the one-way system. “We’re going further than the federal guidelines,” says Loic Sauzeau, regional head of Compass Group, which is reopening the Giacometti, Le Corbusier and PUUR catering outlets. “In addition to safeguarding our staff, we want to provide people with impeccable service.”

Catering points will be open in various buildings in order to limit people’s movement. And to prevent bottlenecks, hot dishes will be served on one side and sandwiches and salads on the other. In the early days, it’ll be a matter of just seeing how things go. “We want to meet our customers’ needs as best we can,” says Sophie Vuetaz, head of operations at Novae, which is reopening the Ornithorynque, Cybercafé and Epicure outlets. “But getting the quantity of food that we produce right will also be a challenge – we don’t yet know how much demand there will be, and we want to keep waste to a minimum. We’ll have to take it one day at a time.”

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