Jeff of Smoke Berkeley sits and waits for takeout customers in Spats this week. Photo: Pete Rosos

The city has created a $3 million “relief fund” — and is asking private donors to chip in, too — in an effort to help Berkeley businesses and arts organizations weather the financial storm caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The City Council unanimously voted in favor of the new fund during Tuesday night’s emergency meeting to address pressing issues such as tenant protections and the business bailout. Organizers are holding an online launch event at 3 p.m. Sunday to promote the new effort, which they’re calling the Berkeley Relief Fund. (Berkeleyside is a community partner in the endeavor.)

The city plans to give emergency grants to small businesses and nonprofit arts organizations, as well as residential tenants, that have been the hardest hit by COVID-19.

This week, organizers are asking local businesses that want to share their stories as part of the launch to send in 30-second videos describing recent challenges and explaining why help is needed. (Scroll to the bottom for video guidelines. Email Berkeley Community Media with questions.) The submission deadline to be included in the launch event is Friday at 5 p.m.

Organizers plan to share the first batch of videos as part of the kickoff event at 3 p.m. Sunday and may share additional videos on a rolling basis as they come in, possibly on a YouTube channel.

The fund itself will be managed by the city of Berkeley and “used only for emergency grants, for those businesses and nonprofits that can demonstrate a significant drop in revenues or patronage from prior year,” wrote Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner, who is helping with outreach around the new campaign.

Applications for help “will be available soon,” Caner said. Some of the details are still being worked out, as the situation has developed quickly. Supporters say they know, however, that time is of the essence.

“I’m putting this forward because we can’t wait,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said during Tuesday’s council meeting. He says he’s afraid widespread closures will change the city’s culture while also dealing a serious economic blow to municipal tax revenues.

Officials said Tuesday that they may have to reconsider earlier budget allocations they made, and “focus on essential city services” so the city manager can direct money to where it’s needed most.

It will be a challenging time, officials said, noting that the need far outweighs the available local resources.

“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, there’s no doubt about it,” Arreguín said, due to expected city budget shortfalls across the board.

Council members noted that the city would be “heading into an austerity budget” and that Berkeley should assume it’s looking at a “recession scenario.”

“We are going to have to redo the way we do business,” said Councilwoman Kate Harrison during Tuesday’s meeting. She said the city is going to have to look at all of its base programs and “just need to be really honest about that.”

“No matter what we do, we have got to save our small businesses. This is the engine of our economy,” said Harrison. “This money does not belong to the city, it comes from taxpayers.”

Caner told Berkeleyside on Thursday that he’s hopeful private donors will be able to match the city’s commitment of up to $3 million. Federal and state money is also likely on the way, he said, but it’s unclear when it will land in Berkeley.

“There’s a strong need and desire to help out our community in need,” he told Berkeleyside. “It’s heartbreaking, the stories from our merchants and the arts organizations that have had to lay off almost all employees. They’re running out of cash and running out of supplies.”

Even for the businesses that are considered essential services and have been able to stay open, Caner said, it hasn’t been easy.

“There aren’t a lot of people coming in,” he said. “Most of these organizations just don’t know how they’re going to survive.”

Video guidelines

Directions: Use a cellphone or camera to record your 30-second video (in horizontal/landscape mode).

  1. Introduce yourself: “Hello my name is <your name>, with <your business>…”
  2. Share the impact of the pandemic on your business, employees and/or your family and livelihood
  3. End the video by asking that everyone “please donate to the Berkeley Relief Fund today!”
  4. Email your video to Brian Scott at Berkeley Community Media ( or text it to 510-295-9207: Include your name and business name for identification on YouTube.

Note: Berkeleyside added information from Tuesday’s council meeting to this story shortly after publication.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...