What’s next for parklets, evictions in Berkeley as COVID-19 ‘emergency’ ends

Some pandemic-forced changes will stick, while others — including aid for struggling tenants — face an uncertain future.

Triple Rock Brewery is one of nearly 50 Berkeley businesses that have opened outdoor seating areas since the pandemic began. Credit: Pete Rosos

Nearly two years after COVID-19 began upending daily life in Berkeley, the pandemic has already outlasted some of the changes it inspired. The city’s Healthy Streets program, which sought to give pedestrians and bikes more space by closing a handful of roads to traffic, ended late last year. A city-mandated “hazard pay” raise for grocery store workers expired a few months after it was enacted in early 2021.

But other changes appear to have secured their permanent place in the post-pandemic future — such as the restaurant patios that materialized in parking spots, and virtual City Council meetings that let members of the public share comments from their living room rather than showing up in-person.

Still, others, including efforts to help struggling tenants avoid eviction, face a more uncertain future.

What happens next for many pandemic-forced pivots will depend in part on how long state and local emergency declarations remain in effect since several policies are tied to those orders.

The current statewide emergency declaration is set to expire at the end of March, and it’s unclear whether it will be extended. The future is similarly murky for Berkeley’s declared state of emergency, which was reauthorized earlier this month, meaning it will stay in effect at least until April. Although statements from public health officials have described shifting from an emergency pandemic response to a longer-term effort to live with the virus, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said there is not currently a timeline for ending Berkeley’s state of emergency.

“We are still emerging from a major pandemic wave,” Chakko wrote in an email. “We are watching data closely.”

Here’s a look at the road ahead for some of the most significant pandemic-era changes:

Eviction moratorium will end, but tenant aid could continue

California’s eviction moratorium expired last fall, and a federal one was struck down by the Supreme Court, but local tenants are still shielded from evictions thanks to city and county prohibitions that remain in effect — for now.

The Berkeley and Alameda County moratoriums, which apply to both residential and commercial tenants, are each tied to their respective local emergency declaration. Alameda County’s moratorium will end 60 days after the county emergency expires; Berkeley’s will end whenever the city emergency does.

What will happen beyond that to renters who are behind on their payments remains unresolved.

“I’m very concerned about this eviction cliff that we’re going to be facing,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an interview.

Arreguín, who has described preventing evictions as a key strategy to stop people from becoming homeless, said he plans to request the city use federal COVID-19 aid funding to provide rental assistance to tenants who need to pay down debts to their landlords. He said the city could also replenish the relief fund it established earlier in the pandemic that distributed grants to struggling small businesses to help them avoid eviction.

It’s not clear how many residents or businesses might be at risk of eviction, Arreguín said, but estimated he would seek “at least $1 million” for renter aid.

“We have to have a plan for what we’re going to do to help our businesses and residents who have faced significant economic hardship throughout this pandemic,” he said.

Curbside dining here to stay

Berkeley had six parklets before the pandemic. But in one of the most noticeable changes to local streets during this era, city officials say nearly 50 businesses have converted street parking spaces into outdoor seating over the past two years.

The explosion of al fresco dining has proven popular with customers, allowing them to soak up the sun and avoid eating indoors, where COVID-19 transmission risk is far higher. And it’s been a lifeline for restaurants like Easy Creole in South Berkeley, which had to close or limit capacity in their dining rooms during earlier stages of the pandemic.

“It’s been honestly one of the saviors of our business,” head chef and co-owner Grant Gooding said of the restaurant’s seating area on Alcatraz Avenue. “Without it, I’m not totally certain we would’ve made it through.”

The City Council approved a permitting process last summer that will allow the outdoor seating areas to become a permanent fixture of Berkeley’s dining scene, though restaurants will have to pay to keep them in place.

Once Berkeley lifts its emergency declaration, the city is giving businesses a year to decide whether they want to keep their spaces and, if so, two options for operating them.

The first and cheaper option is to use an outdoor space as a “parklet.” While that word is commonly used to describe all pop-up seating spaces, under Berkeley’s regulations it’s a title that has several restrictions. Parklets must be open to the public, and they can’t function as part of a business, meaning a restaurant could not offer table service in one; the fact that they’re public space also means alcohol isn’t allowed in parklets. If they’re willing to abide by those rules, businesses can pay a one-time fee of about $1,700 to have a permanent parklet.

Many restaurants and bars will likely want to operate their seating as “outdoor commerce areas,” a title that allows businesses to reserve their space for customers, provide table service and serve alcohol, among other differences.

Outdoor commerce areas will be more expensive, because businesses will have to pay an annual fee meant to replace the revenue the city would have gotten from the parking space their seating occupies. The fee will depend on how much Berkeley charges at surrounding parking meters — as an example, staff estimated the annual cost would work out to just over $5,400 to have a seating area take up a spot where parking costs $2 per hour.

If the business is on a block that doesn’t have metered parking, which is the case for Easy Creole, Berkeley Economic Development Manager Eleanor Hollander said it will have to pay about $4,100 per year. That rate is based on the amount the city charges other businesses that want to occupy parking spaces, such as contractors using the space during construction projects.

Gooding said having to pay thousands of dollars each year to keep Easy Creole’s outdoor space would be “fairly painful,” but figured it would still make for a worthwhile investment.

“We’d bite that bullet,” he said. “Over the course of the year it’ll bring us more business than that.”

Future unclear for caps on delivery app fees

Berkeley joined cities nationwide in limiting service fees charged by popular apps such as DoorDash and Uber Eats in 2020, after restaurants that were depending on takeout and delivery complained those companies were adding to their struggles by taking a big cut out of each order. The City Council initially passed an ordinance capping total fees at no more than 20% of an order in July of 2020, then lowered the limit that December to 15%.

The fee limit ordinance, which remains in effect, is set to expire whenever the declared local emergency order is lifted. Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who wrote the ordinance, said she has not yet decided whether to propose extending it.

“I will want to do some more outreach to our restaurant community before reaching a conclusion,” Kesarwani said.

With indoor and outdoor dining back open, restaurants may not be as dependent on delivery apps today as they were in 2020, which was one reason for enacting the fee limits.

Still, Kesarwani contends the cap “has been a net benefit to bridge these restaurants through the pandemic” by ensuring they can keep more of the money they make from each order. And although some delivery companies responded to the cap by instituting new fees charged directly to customers, Kesarwani said that could have its own benefit by pushing diners to cut third-party apps out of their transaction altogether and order directly from restaurants.

Members of the Berkeley City Council meet via Zoom in January of 2021. Image: Berkeleyside

City Council will keep virtual participation

The Berkeley City Council is expected to once again meet regularly in person this spring — though the option to participate via Zoom will stick around.

Government boards throughout California have been allowed to meet entirely online thanks to the state emergency order, meaning they’ll have to go back to some form of in-person meeting if that order isn’t extended by the end of March.

Berkeley officials are making plans for City Council meetings to have a hybrid future starting in April. Meetings will be conducted in-person at the Berkeley Unified School District Board Room, at 1231 Addison St., and members of the public who wish to participate will also have the option to deliver comments either in the board room or over Zoom. Similarly, council members will be able to participate remotely.

Many advocates have regarded the shift to virtual meetings as one of the pandemic’s brightest silver linings since it has given people who might not otherwise be able to spend hours at an in-person meeting a way to take part in the civic process.

“We’ve had unprecedented numbers of people who have participated in our meetings,” Arreguín said. “It’s good for our democracy.”

The council did a trial run of the hybrid setup at a meeting last December, which Arreguín acknowledged had a few technical hiccups; another test is planned for a March 15 work session on the city’s housing element.

As for other local government bodies, Berkeley Unified School District spokeswoman Trish McDermott said the school board has not yet decided how it will handle meetings in the future.

And the hybrid model won’t be an option for most of Berkeley’s more than 30 other city boards and commissions. While the school board chambers have the technology needed to enable hybrid council meetings, City Clerk Mark Numainville said that isn’t the case for the often smaller and less well-equipped rooms that other city bodies were meeting in before the pandemic. Those smaller commissions are expected to go back to in-person meetings, Numainville said.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.