Berkeley seeks relief from countywide ban on outdoor dining

Customers sit outside in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto.
Maggie Soun/File
Customers sit outside eateries in North Berkeley prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of Berkeley is looking to receive an exemption from the state's recently reinstated ban on outdoor dining in Alameda County.

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Berkeley is pushing back against the state’s Friday ban on outdoor dining in Alameda County, which comes as a reversal of recently relaxed public health guidelines.

According to an Alameda County press release, the order stems from a pattern of elevated transmission in the county, leading to its placement on the state’s monitoring list. After three days on the list, counties become subject to additional restrictions and state-level enforcement. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín expressed opposition to the rollback, saying it will hurt local businesses. The state’s “one size fits all solution” does not account for localized data, Arreguín said in an email.

Alameda County’s case rate is still solidly under the California average, and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday to submit a variance request, which would grant the county an exemption from the new rules.

Berkeley has an even lower percentage of positive COVID-19 tests than the remainder of the county does, with 1.6% to the county figure of 3.9%, according to public health officer Lisa Hernandez. Both numbers are well below the state’s recommended limit of 8%.

Arreguín said in a statement that he believes outdoor dining with physical distancing protocols is safe, based on the administration’s understanding of COVID-19 transmission and research showing limited outdoor spread of the disease.

Berkeley is one of three California cities to have its own public health division, which can cause friction regarding whether the city is subject to its own orders or those of Alameda County, according to Arreguín.

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said in a recent town hall that Berkeley will comply with the new regulations in the short term, but will be working to secure a variance either independently or jointly with Alameda County.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to ensure that we can address this head-on, and in the best manner possible, and legally,” Williams-Ridley said.

Williams-Ridley added that Berkeley will be providing its health department data to Alameda County in order to bolster the variance request. The other two cities with independent health departments, Long Beach and Pasadena, received variances in approximately two to three days, so Williams-Ridley said she is optimistic about a swift reprieve from the new restrictions.

The county press release adds that even if the outdoor dining variance is granted, it doesn’t mean Alameda County will move to reopen other sectors or industries.

Both Arreguín and Williams-Ridley, however, expressed a desire for Berkeley to have more independence in deciding public health guidelines, in order to meet the particular safety and economic needs of the city.

“We are aiming to seek clarity from the state of California around our own independent status as a health department,” Arreguín said at the town hall. “We want to have our own local ability at Berkeley, to make our own decisions based on our own data.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.