Under a proposal that the City Council will consider on June 2, more Berkeley streets would be opened for outdoor dining like at BART Plaza. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

Berkeley’s streets, sidewalks, parks, medians, parking lots and other public spaces could be turned into outdoor dining areas if a proposal by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn gains traction.

Since indoor restaurant dining is prohibited under Berkeley’s shelter in place order — and will continue to be banned for the foreseeable future – Arreguín and Hahn want the City Council to direct City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley to look into opening public spaces for outdoor dining in a way that maintains social distancing measures. The issue is on the council’s June 2 consent calendar.

“This proposal will enable us to reopen an important part of our economy while minimizing the risk of new infections,” Arreguín said in a press release.

Reactions by restaurant owners to the idea were generally positive, but with caveats. While most everyone likes the idea of allowing more outdoor service, many had questions about the logistics.

John Paluska, the co-owner of Comal and Comal Next Door on Shattuck Avenue, wants to make sure that the expanded outdoor seating does not interfere with delivery services like DoorDash or Caviar. Two-thirds of the restaurants’ business is now through delivery, he said.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t create logistical hurdles for delivery companies,” he said. “Delivery drivers already have a hard time getting close to downtown restaurants. They want to park close and get in and out quickly.”

Adam Stemmler, who co-owns East Bay Spice Company and is one of the managing partners of Spats (as well as owning Arthur Mac’s in Oakland), said restaurants had been in peril before the COVID-19 crisis because of rising minimum wages and the high cost of food. Creating more space to eat outdoor might help, but “expanding capacity alone is not enough,” he said. It should only be one tool. Other initiatives are needed as well. For example, California is allowing restaurants to sell alcohol to go under pandemic rules, which is “wildly advantageous for us,” he said. Stemmler thinks the state should let that continue as one step in helping restaurants survive. And Berkeley has to allow patrons to drink alcohol in the expanded outdoor dining areas, which may not be contiguous to a restaurant.

Amy Murray, who owns Revival Bar + Kitchen on Shattuck Avenue, said the concept of outdoor dining is good, but there are many questions still unanswered. ADA laws, for example, require that enough space be left open on sidewalks so two 36-inch-wide wheelchairs can pass by one another. How will Arreguín and Hahn’s proposal address this? she asked.

And in downtown Berkeley, the question of whether patrons can feel safe eating outdoors also needs to be answered, said Murray. Shattuck Avenue is a gathering place for the city’s unhoused and those who panhandle. People regularly defecate on the sidewalks and people with mental illnesses often wander the streets or act aggressively to passersby, she said. It won’t do much good to allow more outdoor dining without simultaneously addressing quality-of-life issues, she said.

Which streets, parks, medians and sidewalks would be open for dining?

The proposal does not make recommendations about which streets could be opened. Cafés, restaurants and food businesses would have to apply “for temporary use of streets, surface lots, public parking spaces, public recreation space, and adjacent parcels for outdoor dining that will enable compliance with public health dictates for physical separation,” states the ordinance.

The city will work with the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Berkeley Association and various building improvement districts, or BIDs, to come up with ideas about which streets, parks, median, sidewalks and other spaces should be turned over for dining.

John Caner, the executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said he doesn’t think main thoroughfares like Shattuck Avenue or University Avenue would be closed under this proposal, although a lane of traffic or parking bays could be used. In the downtown, some obvious candidates for closure would be Center Street, Addison Street, Allston Way, Kittredge Street and even Milvia Street, he said. But merchants haven’t had a chance to talk about which areas might be good candidates, he said.

On Fourth Street, the side street by Sur La Table that leads into the parking lot could be closed, according to Donna Savitsky, who owns Tacubaya.

Since it could be expensive to put tables and chairs outdoors, the proposal asks the city manager to look for public grants or philanthropic dollars to help restaurants and food shops pay for the outdoor furniture. It also proposes to waive sidewalk café permits/fees.

Berkeley still has a strict shelter-in-place order

The proposal to open Berkeley’s streets for outdoor dining goes far beyond what Berkeley’s current shelter-in-place order permits. While other cities and counties are relaxing some rules — San Francisco, for instance, plans to allow retail stores to offer curbside pickup starting Monday — Berkeley’s public health officer has not indicated she intends to loosen restrictions soon. Matthai Chakko, the city spokesman, told Berkeleyside earlier this week that Dr. Lisa Hernandez and other officials want to see the impact of some rules that were loosened in an April 29 order. That order, which went into effect May 4, allowed all construction to resume, for example, if crews respected social distancing guidelines.

Arreguín and Hahn said they are seeking “the guidance of the public health officer.”

The original shelter-in-place order, which took effect on March 17, has been devastating for the bottom line of Berkeley’s restaurants, cafés and food businesses as well as for their workers. While many of them have limped along with delivery, curbside pickup, PPP loans, GoFundMe campaigns and grants from Berkeley’s Relief Fund and other nonprofits, business is still way down.

Amy Murray of Revival Bar+Kitchen shows off lunches she has made for the homeless as part of the Double Helping Hands program. Photo: John Caner

Murray said Revival is doing 10% of the business it did before the pandemic when she could count on patrons on their way to performances at Berkeley Rep, Aurora Theatre, UC Theatre, the Jazz Conservancy or Freight & Salvage. Currently, her most regular business comes from programs like Double Helping Hands, which has restaurants prepare lunch for homeless people using services at Dorothy Day House, or East Bay Feed ER, which has restaurants prepare meals for hospital workers. When Revival participates, workers make from 40 to 150 meals.

Food products generated 34.5% of Berkeley’s sales tax revenues in 2018.

Paluska said Comal Next Door is doing about 80% of the business it did before the shelter-in-place order, but Comal — which has started a new program, Comal to go, which offers family-style meals to go as well as pantry items like salsa, soups and tamales — is doing about 20% of its former level of business.

Stemmler said the East Bay Spice Company’s revenues are down about 80%.

Before the pandemic, there were about 350 restaurants in Berkeley, according to Arreguín’s press release. Food products generated 34.5% of Berkeley’s sales tax revenues in 2018.

“With restaurants limited to deliveries, or closing completely, there is a risk of permanent closure to many of these institutions which would have long lasting impacts on employment and the local economy,” according to the press release.

In a bid to increase business, Berkeley Restaurant Week To Go starts today and will continue through May 24. In an “Eat Good to Do Good” campaign, restaurants will be selling meals for $15, $20 and $25 dollars and sharing some funds with a charitable institution.

Arreguín said he was inspired to suggest the open-air dining measure after he saw what was happening in Vilnius, Lithuania. Other cities, including New York and San Jose, are also considering opening up public spaces for dining.

Avatar photo

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...