Opinion: When Berkeley residents are there for each other, we are at our best

COVID-19 is also threatening a local economic crisis, which may affect the viability of Berkeley’s small businesses. Here are some steps we can take to help out.

Dear fellow Berkeleyans,

As we confront the threats and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, our community is called to respond with our own epidemic – of kindness, care and mutual support. The city of Berkeley has declared an emergency, and our emergency operations center and health department have been working non-stop to plan for, manage and confront the current and impending health challenges, and keep us as safe and healthy as possible.

Berkeley is one of the only cities in California to have its own public health department, and its own health officer, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, who is able to focus on the needs and circumstances of our city, in consultation and coordination with Alameda County and state health officials. I hope everyone is following her recommendations and obtaining information from trusted sources: Berkeley Public Health, Alameda County Public Health Department, the California Department of Public Health, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

There is another emergency unfolding simultaneously – a local economic crisis that threatens the livelihood and viability of our small businesses, arts organizations and vulnerable workers who may go hungry – or lose their housing – in the face of a reduction in hours or loss of a job.

On Thursday, as I walked the North Shattuck business district speaking with merchants and restauranteurs, I happened upon a shop owner consoling a longtime employee. A tiny enterprise, the owner had just let him go, having already experienced a 50% reduction in business. Both were close to tears; two vulnerable friends looking down the road at challenging times. Berkeleyside quoted Patrick Dooley, artistic director of Shotgun Players theater, who reported selling only two tickets to an upcoming performance when 50 are usually sold.

These are just two vignettes that suggest the potential challenges our small businesses and arts organizations – and their employees – already face. Berkeley’s economic development department, working with local business and arts associations, is moving quickly to identify diverse and rapidly evolving needs. My office is collaborating with Mayor Jesse Arreguín to consider ways we can help all vulnerable Berkeleyans, including renters who may not be able to make rent, and our already-vulnerable homeless neighbors.

While public officials carry out their duties and roles, there is an equally important role for the people of Berkeley – to support each other and our local businesses and the arts. These past 24 hours, community members have already reached out to me with ideas, suggestions and offers of help. From local epidemiologists offering expertise to neighbors organizing to run errands, the outpouring of care has started, and I know it will accelerate in the coming weeks.

For those looking for ideas, I offer these initial suggestions, which can be done while respecting current public health protocols.


Buy tickets to local shows – even if you don’t plan to go, or the performance has been canceled. Arts organizations that depend on ticket sales are hurting. If you can afford to purchase tickets, please consider buying them even though there’s no show, or purchasing vouchers that can be redeemed later. You might have spent the money anyway, and your purchase, or any donation you can make, will help ensure that when the current crisis is over, the show can go on.

Shop Local! Before you buy anything online, please consider if you could make the same purchase from a local establishment. If you aren’t in an identified high-risk population and follow the advice of health officials, you may decide to shop in person. If you prefer not to be out-and-about, check if local shops have online portals. If they don’t, please make the extra effort to call. During these unusual times, many may be willing to help by assembling orders for quick pick-up or arranging to mail or deliver.

Take-out or get food delivered from local restaurants if you don’t feel comfortable eating-in. If you prefer not to sit in a restaurant or café, you can still give them your business! Call or go online to order for pick-up or delivery.  If you are working from home, consider getting lunch from a local restaurant. With UC Berkeley and other schools closed, and offices encouraging employees to work from home, they need your business.

Buy gift certificates from your favorite stores, restaurants and service providers, to use yourself, or as gifts for friends. If you have a favorite massage therapist, nail salon, hairdresser, shop, restaurant or other service provider or establishment, purchase gift certificates that can be redeemed later. Small businesses and service providers need the income now to pay their rent and employees.

Help your neighbors. Reach out to neighbors by email or phone, or knock on their doors to check in – while respecting recommended health and safety protocols. Older folks and people with existing health conditions may already be sheltering indoors and would appreciate help with errands, shopping and other challenges.

Practice Random Acts of Kindness. How long has it been since you had flowers delivered to your parent, partner, neighbor or friend?  Just think how nice it would be for them to receive a bouquet in these unsettling times – and how much it will help your local florist.  Restaurant half empty?  A generous tip will help hourly employees receive income supplements they rely on.  Even something as simple as a greeting or smile can lift someone’s day.

When we’re there for each other, we’re at our very best.  Thank you for being vigilant for your own health and wellbeing, and for supporting the wellbeing of the entire community, as you can.

Sophie Hahn is the vice mayor and District 5 City Councilwoman.