Berkeley businesses hit hard by the economics of social distancing

Theaters are selling fewer tickets, museums are seeing fewer visitors, and restaurants are seeing a significant drop in business.

Customers at Bay Area Co-Roasters’ café in Berkeley in busier times. Photo: Bay Area Co-Roasters

With empty seats, empty stores and emptier-than-usual cash registers, Berkeley businesses are taking a major hit from the new coronavirus, many business owners and leaders say.

“This past weekend our sales dropped by half,” said Floy Andrews, owner and founder of Bay Area Co-Roasters or Co-Ro, a coffee roasting co-op and café on Fifth Street. “Usually a busy work week day we’d be having a café full of customers; today we have three customers.”

In Berkeley, as in other parts of the world, people seem to be heeding the public health call for “social distancing” or avoiding crowds to reduce the spread of the highly contagious upper respiratory virus which is transmitted through coughing, sneezing and physical contact. Many celebrations, meetings, gatherings have been canceled. UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College halted most classroom sessions for distance learning. The city has called for limiting attendance at large events. The Berkeley Unified School District is canceling large events. BAMPFA postponed its annual gala.

This is good news in terms of preventing the spread of the virus. But for some in the business community, it comes with a wallop.


Business owners describe being caught in a kind of pandemic Catch-22. They completely support social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, they fear for their survival.

Andrews, who rents coffee roasting space to clients from around the Bay Area and beyond, echoed what many in Berkeley’s business community are saying, especially businesses that rely on crowds. Customer numbers are dramatically down, which is scary for the financial bottom-line survival of not only the business itself but of its employees. Letting go of staff and cutting back on staff hours are early steps businesses take in tough times to try to stay alive.

“There’s two economic impacts,” Andrews said. “One is the impact to the business and it’s real, we are a small business and this could put us under.” And then, she said, “Are the employees. Oh my gosh… They’re going to have to have an income stream.”

She adds: “We would love to support everybody [staff] through the process of this coronavirus emergency but it’s not just unfeasible, it’s impossible.”


It’s hard to quantify the impact COVID-19 is having on Berkeley’s economy. Berkeleyside reached out to the city’s economic development manager and haven’t heard back by publication time.

The city last week launched a webpage with guidance for businesses on coronavirus preparedness.

But conversations with various businesses and business groups tell a story of drops in revenue, worry, and few ideas of what to do.

“I do think we need to be worried about our small businesses having very, very, very decreased patronage over the next few weeks,” said Kirsten MacDonald, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

All of the businesses we talked with are taking extra steps to clean and disinfect their spaces, following all relevant guidelines. They want the public to know this, but, at the same time, understand why people are staying away, especially at-risk groups.

“We have no idea how long this will go on for,” said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, a membership business improvement district or BID which supports businesses in the city’s core.


So far, he said, his members aren’t speaking out too loudly about the situation. But the stirrings of concern are palpable.

“A lot of our businesses struggle as is,” Caner said. “This could have a devastating impact to small businesses and nonprofits.”

In this new rocky economic frontier, Caner hopes his members can learn from each other. “How do we come together to share best practices.”

As downtown is home to the city’s arts district, Caner is particularly worried about theaters, music, and other cultural venues, as well as the food establishments catering to these patrons. By definition, they want and need lots of customers. By definition, this directly opposes social distancing.

“Their core mission is sharing the arts experience in a collective setting,” Caner said.

Indeed, Patrick Dooley, artistic director of Shotgun Players, a nonprofit theater company, said that on Monday they only sold two tickets to their upcoming performance of Henry V, when 50 get sold on a normal day.

“Across the region, when I talk to other Bay Area directors, everybody is really feeling the pinch,” Dooley said. “It’s more than a pinch. It’s like the well has dried up. And all of us are very concerned. We survive on the margins.”

Theaters struggle as it is, he said. Coronavirus may be the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Shotgun is exploring ways to livestream their shows — for a fee, he added.

Habitot Children’s Museum doesn’t have this option, as an experiential museum with an array of tactile experiences.

“Our visitation is less than half of what it was two weeks ago,” said Gina Moreland, Habitot’s executive director. The museum is experiencing a drop in reservations for its spring break camp, she said.

Similar venues for children, such as Fairyland in Oakland have reached out to Habitot. ‘We’re all trying to figure out what to do and when,” Moreland said. “The financial impact on us will be great if it comes to closure. I am especially worried for our staff  — how will they pay rent/buy food? We’re looking into whether unemployment insurance can help.”

Moreland is already looked into the museum’s insurance: “Unfortunately our insurance agent confirmed that bacteriological and viral contagion are definitely NOT covered, nor is loss of business. He’s never seen a policy that did cover what we are all experiencing now.”

Another Planet Entertainment, which produces concerts around the Bay Area, has canceled or postponed all of its shows until the end of March, said Sherry Wasserman, co-founder and president of the company.  The company supports the concept of social distancing but regrets the cancellations because “music is a powerful healer,” she said.

“I personally have never seen anything close our business down like this and we have been through a lot of challenges holding public assemblage and live concerts through the many decades,” said Wasserman. “From earthquakes to fires and firestorms, mass shootings, airplane crashes killing performers and our teacher Bill Graham, overdoses and the AIDS epidemic that took away so many in the arts early but never stopped the music, we thought we had been through everything. This is unprecedented.”

Many are hoping for some kind of government assistance in the form or no- or low-interest loans or even grants. President Trump’s $8.3 billion COVID-19 emergency supplemental spending bill passed last week primarily earmarks health efforts. But is  includes funding for the Small Business Administration.

It’s not clear yet how this will funnel down to local communities like Berkeley.

But it offers some businesses a window of hope.

“We’re keeping a close eye on what the Governor’s Office is saying about this. We’re keeping an eye out on what municipalities are doing to provide resources,” said MacDonald from the Chamber.

“We’re trying to keep a level head about this and really look at serious reports and making sure we’re not contributing to hyperbole and being cautious, and being a leader for cautiousness,” she added.

“I think it is important to get government assistance,” said Caner of the Downtown Association.

Meanwhile, over at Gather restaurant on Oxford Street, events manager Jody Munson said things are bleak with fewer reservations as well as cancellations, especially of large parties. She worries about the finances, but also the emotional impact. “I think it’s been really stressful on the whole team.”

Update, 5:06 pm: After publication, Habitot Children’s Museum sent out an email saying it will be closed from March 13 to 31.