Lights dim in the Berkeley Arts District, but restaurants are open

At nighttime, the Berkeley Repertory Theater is brilliantly lit up. Photo: Young Electric + Communications

When the sun sets in downtown Berkeley tonight, the streets won’t look normal.

The marquees that usually light up announcing various performances will be dimmed. Berkeley Rep has put its shows on hiatus until April 5. Freight & Salvage has canceled musical performances until April 17. The UC Theatre on University Avenue is also postponing its March and April shows. The California Jazz Conservatory is going dark through March. Cal Performances is postponing events as well. Aurora Theatre just announced it is canceling its production of “Loot,” which was scheduled to open April 3. And the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is dark.

“We’re all reeling right now,” John Caner, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association told the City Council’s agenda and rules committee Thursday. “We’re seeing a 25 to 75 percent decrease in revenues. All of the downtown arts will be going dark. The impact is clearly really hard for those organizations but they realize they need to do the right thing.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, the city’s health director, urged residents to limit their attendance of “mass gatherings” to thwart the spread of COVID-19. She did not define that number but, after Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the postponement of events with more than 250 people on Thursday, the city is now using that guideline, said Dee Williams-Ridley, Berkeley’s city manager.  People over 60, who are at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus, should not gather in groups larger than 10, she said. Best practices guidelines also include social distancing — the practice of staying 6 feet away from people — as well as washing hands frequently.


The closure of so many Berkeley performance spaces is having a trickle-down effect on downtown eateries. Restaurants that are usually busy on Friday nights, when they generally feed hundreds of the patrons who go out to see plays, hear music or attend talks, have seen a huge drop in business.

“It’s frightening,” Amy Murray, owner of Revival Bar + Kitchen, told one TV news station. “It’s unprecedented.”

At Gather restaurant on Oxford Street, numerous large parties have canceled their reservations. The financial hit and uncertainty are hard on staff, said Jody Munson, Gather’s events manager. “It’s been really stressful on the whole team.”

Caner’s DBA, along with the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District, sent a letter to the city today with suggestions about how to offset the financial losses businesses are experiencing, he said. That included deferring, discounting or waiving fees and taxes; providing interest-free loans of up to $75,000 for businesses that have a 25% drop in gross receipts; and establish a moratorium on new business regulations such as Fair Workweek and Healthy Checkout.

Subscribe to the Daily Briefing

Don't miss a story. Get Berkeleyside headlines delivered to your inbox.

Shutting down, even temporarily, has been a gut-wrenching decision for many organizations. In an email to subscribers, Josh Costello, the artistic director of Aurora, announced that he and Julie Saltzman-Kellner, the managing director, would be taking a pay cut to help mitigate the economic impact.

“As with so many organizations, this change of plans will affect the Aurora community in many different ways,” Costello wrote. “Our artists will have less work, which makes it even more difficult to meet expenses in the Bay Area. Aurora will have less income from ticket sales. While we can cut back on some expenses, our margins — like all nonprofit theatres — are so slim that this is going to at the very least burn through what rainy day funds we have and may impact our future plans.

“We make the challenging decision to cancel ​for the sake of the larger community,” he wrote.

Update, 5:45 p.m. The story was updated to include the suggestions made by the business community to the city for relief and to include the letter. 

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.