For many UC Berkeley students, the names of local restaurants and storefronts roll off of the tongue like second homes. They conjure up memories of late-night snack runs down Durant Avenue, food-coma-inducing portions and countless warm meals enjoyed on broad wooden benches. Small businesses hold emotional significance for the Berkeley community — they are what give this city its character and individuality.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, small businesses have suffered. The initial announcement of Bette’s Oceanview Diner’s closure devastated Berkeley locals who wanted the closest thing to a home-cooked meal. But with plans to return as a co-op called the Oceanview Diner, Bette’s Oceanview Diner turned out to be one of the lucky ones — many other businesses have been forced to close their doors for good.
Typically residing in Berkeley for their college years, students occupy a liminal space between being residents and being guests. As temporary as it all may feel, however, students play a larger role in the local economy than they may realize.
Large numbers of students choosing to purchase school books through Amazon may threaten local bookstores. Ordering food from large chain restaurants might direct business away from local restaurants. With ever-increasing inflation, local businesses don’t have the same margins as large corporations to absorb price changes and slower business days.
As essential members of the Berkeley community, students must recognize the impact of their consumer choices and shop locally. Not only will they be giving back to businesses that truly need it, they will also be reaping the health benefits of local produce.
Unlike large chain supermarkets, local produce is usually more nutritional and contributes to mindful eating habits — simply because consumers know where the produce is coming from. Many local markets, including Berkeley farmers’ markets, also accept Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, and participate in Market Match, making fresher produce accessible for students.
The need to support local businesses, however, is not merely financial. With the expiration of the California mask mandate less than one week away, the city must bolster pandemic-safety-related support for small businesses.
Restaurant workers are significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure, with more than half of workers having been within six feet of someone without a mask in a given shift. Street vendor workers are exposed to even greater risk, as the lack of proper infrastructure, cleaning facilities and waste management compound COVID-19 risks. With customers’ particular emphasis on pandemic-safe services, small businesses only stand a chance against resource-rich corporations and online alternatives when provided with adequate personal protective equipment.
Small businesses are what make Berkeley a home — skip the Chipotle line.