Your key COVID-19 questions answered

What is an essential business? Can I take my kid to the park? Is the DMV open? Where can I get relief money? Answers to these and more of your frequently asked questions.

Taped-off swing sets and play structures at Willard Park: Playgrounds are off-limits during the shelter-in-place order. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley and the wider Bay Area have been sheltering in place since mid-March. While most people are staying home, some activities continue in the broader world. Readers have asked Berkeleyside a range of questions about what is allowed and what is prohibited. Here are answers to some of the big ones.

What does “shelter in place” mean?

The new rules mean you must stay home except for certain essential activities. The city of Berkeley’s shelter-in-place order is set to last through May 3, but it’s important to note that California is also under its own order, the length of which is undetermined. Schools around the state are closed until at least May. See the latest about Berkeley Unified.

What is considered an “essential activity”?

According to the city of Berkeley’s shelter in place FAQ, you are free to go to the grocery store or pick up food from a restaurant, access medical care and care for someone who cannot care for themselves. You can go to work if your job has been deemed an essential business. Going outside for a walk or exercise is OK, so long as you maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and others.

What is an essential business?

Health care providers count, of course. So do places to buy food: grocery stores, farmers markets, food banks and convenience stores. Restaurants can only provide takeout and delivery service. Hardware stores can be open and plumbers, electricians, exterminators and other service providers can work.


Also considered essential are banks, laundromats and gas stations (bike repair shops count, too).

Some construction is allowed to continue, but it is limited. See the full list of exemptions on page 5 of the shelter-in-place order.

Businesses that are not considered essential have had to close. Seen here, the boarded-up windows of War Horse Tattoo on Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

Can I get in trouble if I don’t follow the rules?

The shelter-in-place order is legally enforceable, and it’s a misdemeanor crime to violate it. According to the city’s FAQ (which is another great resource), a violation of the order could result in a fine or imprisonment. BPD spokesman Officer Byron White told Berkeleyside in April that, so far, the department had not found it necessary to issue any fines or citations, only warnings. Though “the vast majority” of people appear to be heeding the order, he said, the department is in discussions about what further steps it might take should they be needed.

What about traveling to be with family or friends?

You are free to leave your home to care for someone who needs help and cannot care for themselves. You’re allowed to return home to Berkeley from elsewhere, and you can leave Berkeley if you’re a visitor here. But you can’t travel to visit loved ones unless there is an urgent need.


Can I take my kids to the park? Is playground equipment safe?

You can go to the park, but you must still maintain 6 feet between yourselves and anyone not in your household. The city has closed its playgrounds, both because the equipment is hard to clean and “high-touch” (meaning many people use it), and because it’s difficult to maintain social distance in those spaces.

Tilden Little Farm during the shelter-in-place order is closed; other parks remain partially open. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Can I go hiking? How can I responsibly maintain social distance on the trail?

Yes, with some caveats. The EBRPD announced park, parking lot and entrance point closures in March, which lasts through April 30. See the current closure list on the EBRPD website. A number of parks, for example, are now walk-in only or accessible only from certain gates. Some are closed entirely, like the Tilden Botanic Garden and Sunol Regional Wilderness. The department cited overcrowding as the impetus for the closures.

Public facilities in the parks — such as bathrooms, visitor centers, campgrounds and water fountains — are closed. There is no trash collection, so visitors must pack-in and pack-out their trash. You must, of course, maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and others (dogs are included; they must now be kept on leash).

Can I use public transportation? What about ride-shares?

You can use public transportation, but only for essential activities (such as going to work at an essential business, for example, or buying groceries). You must try to maintain social distance on public transportation. Ride-shares are also allowed, but only for essential travel.

How can I limit my need to go out, even for essential activities?

Try to limit your trips to the grocery store if possible; if you make several trips a week, or visit multiple stores for different items, you’re increasing your risk of exposure. Another tip is to sign up for the USPS informed delivery service to get an email preview of incoming mail and packages. This lets you limit trips to the post office if you use a P.O. box. and to your own mailbox if you have one.

COVID-19 testing in the San Francisco Department of Public Health laboratory. Photo: Tyrone Jue

How many people have been tested for COVID-19 in Berkeley?

We don’t know. The city of Berkeley reports the total number of positive tests on its website, which it updates once each day. City spokesman Matthai Chakko told Berkeleyside in March that the city has no information about how many Berkeleyans may have been tested overall because those tests could be happening all over the state. The city told Berkeleyside previously that all COVID-19 testing for people in Berkeley is done privately through their own clinicians: “We learn of positive tests regardless of which county the clinician is in as long as the patient is a Berkeley resident.”

Berkeley is one of the only cities in the state that has its own public health division. That’s usually a county function and includes a public health testing lab. Berkeley, however, has no lab of its own. Bay Area jurisdictions that do provide testing site figures include Marin, Napa, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties.

Alameda County also reports the number of positive tests in the county on its website; this number excludes Berkeley’s count. Neetu Balram, a county spokeswoman, told Berkeleyside by email that data on the total number of tests was not available because labs have not been required to report negative or inconclusive tests to local health departments. That should now change because of a new health officer order issued March 24. Balram said, however, that the county does not “have a policy” for releasing this information publicly.

The state department of health does release the total number of tests in the state — including negative or inconclusive test results. When asked, a spokesperson said the department does not provide this data by county, however.

I have symptoms or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. How can I get tested in Berkeley?

It might be hard to get tested. Due to a nationwide shortage of testing kits, tests are being reserved for high-risk patients. That means that, even if you have symptoms, you might just be advised to stay home and self-monitor.

If you do want to get tested, you should call your health care provider, who can help you determine if you qualify. Don’t go to the emergency room or urgent care to seek a test. See previous Berkeleyside coverage on providers that are offering testing in Berkeley.

I’ve been laid off/have lost hours due to COVID-19. How can I apply for unemployment insurance?

You can apply through California’s Employment Development Department (EDD). The department is urging online applications for the fastest response time. The typical one-week waiting period has been waived, which means you should be able to collect benefits the first week you are out of work. They’re typically worth about 60-70% of wages, according to the EDD website. However, Congress just expanded aid to the jobless by tacking on payments for an additional 13 weeks and extending unemployment to gig workers and freelancers.

If you are unable to work either because you have COVID-19 or were exposed to it and are quarantined, you can apply for disability insurance as long as you have medical documentation. If you need to care for a sick family member, you can file for paid family leave. And if you have to miss work to care for children who are out of school, you may be eligible for unemployment insurance as well.

Where else can I get money to help me through?

The city of Berkeley, along with civic, community and business leaders, have set up a new Berkeley Relief Fund. The city has pledged $3 million and the community has so far contributed more than $680,000. Organizers are hoping to raise $6 million. Small businesses, arts nonprofits and residential renters will be allowed to apply for grants.

Federal money may be coming your way

Congress approved a $2 trillion relief package in March that includes a $1,200 payment to every adult who paid taxes in 2018 or 2019 taxes and earned $75,000 or $2,400 payment to couples filing jointly with an income of up to $150,000. If your income is above $75,000 but below $99,000 (or below $198,000 for a couple) the payment will be smaller. The government will also pay $500 for each child. The federal bill also provides an extra $600 per week for up to four months for those receiving unemployment benefits.

Property taxes are due April 10. What if I can’t pay them?

Alameda County treasurer Henry Levy said in April that he “will work with you” if you have been financially impacted by COVID-19. Those who can pay their taxes should pay them, and those who can’t may be eligible for waivers if they can establish “reasonable cause.” See the details and watch a YouTube video about the announcement.

Are there any protections in place for Berkeley renters?

In March, the Berkeley City Council approved some protections for residential and commercial tenants concerned about eviction during the COVID-19 crisis. Community members will need to provide evidence that any financial loss or failure to pay rent is related to COVID-19. People who have caregiving responsibilities were included in the item. The city plans to work with the rent board and the property owners association on implementation of the ordinance. Council members made some adjustments during their discussion, but this document lays out the general plan. Here’s more guidance from the city about renter protections and resources.

What if paying my mortgage is going to be a problem?

A number of major banks, including Wells Fargo, Citibank, J.P. Morgan Chase and US Bank have agreed to allow homeowners adversely affected by the crisis to miss mortgage payments for 90 days. Bank of America had agreed to a 30-day delay but may extend it.

Is the DMV open?

No — the DMV has closed all field offices. According to its website, it will continue to process “critical transactions” by mail and online.

It’s worth noting that the Real ID deadline — which was previously Oct. 1 — has been postponed until Oct. 1, 2021. And if your driver’s license is set to expire, you have 60 more days to renew it. You won’t be cited for driving with an expired license, according to the DMV.

I know that there’s a severe shortage of blood right now. Where can I give blood?

There are Red Cross blood drives at the Oakland Blood Donation Center scheduled daily. Times vary; check the Red Cross website for details.

You have to be healthy to give blood, and there are also restrictions if you have recently traveled to certain countries or have been in contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected case.

Is the county recorder’s office open? I need a marriage license/copy of a birth certificate/copy of a public record.

The Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s office will be closed to the public until further notice. However, as the office notes on its website, it will still provide certain essential items via mail or online. These services include issuing marriage licenses and providing certified copies of vital records and public records. If you need to obtain a marriage license, for example, you can email CROCustomerService@acgov.org to receive an information packet.

Can I get my smog checked?

Yes. Auto-related facilities are considered essential and can stay open.

Should I be wearing an N95 mask? How can I get them to health workers?

There is a shortage of N95 masks, the ones recommended for health workers to help protect against COVID-19. Efforts are underway regionally and nationally to address it. In the meantime, community efforts are underway to donate new masks and make fabric ones that can also be useful.

Maddy and Curtis are spending their free time standing outside Berkeley Bowl asking for donations of protective gear. The two are both second-year students in the UC Berkeley and UCSF joint medical program. Photo: Pete Rosos

Where can I get hand sanitizer?

As is the case with masks, stores — including online retailers — seem to be having trouble stocking hand sanitizer with any regularity. It’s often not available at all. It’s worth noting that experts recommend hand-washing with regular soap and water over hand sanitizer, because soap is more effective at eliminating certain types of germs.

Can I still close on a house?

Yes. According to guidance from the California Association of Realtors, real estate agents must cease in-person meetings, showings or inspections, but they are free to conduct business virtually. This business can include “documentation and signing, and in many circumstances, closings.”

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside updated this story April 10 to reflect new guidelines that have changed since this story was first published.