City Council dedicates $3M to COVID-19 relief fund to be matched by community donations

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The city of Berkeley started a relief fund aimed at providing aid to small businesses, local arts organizations and Berkeley renters who have been adversely affected by the economic impact of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus.

Berkeley City Council approved up to $3 million in emergency relief grants to support the effort at its meeting March 17. On Sunday, Mayor Jesse Arreguín launched an online fundraising event via Zoom teleconference, calling upon the community to match the money contributed by the city with tax-deductible donations.

“I am inspired by our community coming together in this moment in crisis. Since the launch of the Fund on Sunday, we have raised over $550,000,” Arreguín said in an email. “Berkeley is a resilient city, and with everyone’s help, we will prevail.”

Many of Berkeley’s small businesses experienced drops in customers followed by reductions in gross receipts during the beginning of the pandemic. Due to shelter-in-place orders from city, county and state officials, a large number of shops have had to close their doors entirely, leaving their staff without any means of income in some circumstances.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that more than 1 million Californians have applied for unemployment insurance since March 13.

Small businesses and arts organizations have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, according to a press release from Arreguín’s office.

In the days leading up to its closure, the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, a nonprofit community arts organization, saw its refund requests jump from two or three per show to more than 100, according to its executive director Sharon Dolan. Now that it has closed its doors, the Freight and Salvage is losing about $250,000 a month, even after laying off 62 people.

Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys toy stores, said her Berkeley business was also struggling.

“I’m confident we’ll get through it, but it’s going to be a very difficult time,” Sala said. “One of the hardest things in this is thinking about my staff relying on me to pay their bills and buy groceries. Having to lay them off has been … the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The online fundraising event hosted by Arreguín and local author Michael Lewis featured testimony from local business owners, artists and musicians who have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and campus professor of public policy Robert Reich also made appearances during the online event, voicing their support for the city’s relief effort.

The fundraiser was given a head start of $250,000 by Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Berkeley’s largest private employer. As of press time, the fundraiser has reached $556,000.

“The relief that we can provide at a local level cannot and should not replace what the state and fed governments should be doing to help mitigate this crisis,” said Alex Knox, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “With the Berkeley Relief Fund, we help reduce the chance of anyone falling between the cracks.”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.