Downtown Berkeley Struggles as University Implements Distance Learning

Downtown Berkeley Struggles as University Implements Distance Learning
Downtown Berkeley on July 19, 2020. (Daren Chou/The Epoch Times)
Ilene Eng

BERKELEY, Calif.—Right beside the University of California, Berkeley, is downtown Berkeley.

Lined with small shops, cafes, and restaurants, Shattuck Avenue normally bustles with people and vehicles; however, it has been quiet since March.

UC Berkeley has announced that its summer sessions and fall semester will be remote due to COVID-19. With the absence of students on campus, Downtown Berkeley businesses continue to see fewer visitors than normal.

Some of these businesses are temporarily closed, while others struggle to stay open.

“In our lunchtime, it used to be crazy busy. We used to [have] here 10, 12 employees per shift before. Now there’s like 2, 3, and it’s not even that busy,” Nikita Adhikari, general manager of Organic Greens Salad & More, told The Epoch Times.

The salad place is right across from the campus and used to serve a lot of students.

Some businesses in Downtown Berkeley are temporarily closed. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)
Some businesses in Downtown Berkeley are temporarily closed. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)

John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, estimates that University-related staff, faculty and students make up a quarter to half of Downtown business.

Other schools doing remote learning in the fall, such as Berkeley City College and Berkeley High School, also contribute significantly to Downtown Berkeley before the pandemic.

Caner said few businesses are permanently closed; more are temporarily closed.

“But that doesn’t mean the students aren’t coming back. Some of them will come back and do online in Berkeley, and some have stayed in Berkeley; we don’t know how many,” Caner told The Epoch Times. “But that’s definitely going to impact the businesses.”

Restaurants make up most of Downtown Berkeley and are an affordable jackpot for hungry students.

Fabrizio Cercatore, founder of Passione Pizza, informed The Epoch Times via email that students make up 70 percent of the restaurant’s business.

“With the school closed and the closure of all the businesses that are functioning for the university, there are not enough people in downtown Berkeley right now,” Cercatore wrote.

Cercatore’s business closed on July 27 and plans to reopen in January 2021.

A hand sanitizer station for public use. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)
A hand sanitizer station for public use. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)

According to Roscoe Skipper, owner of the restaurant Corso Berkeley, the restaurant closed on July 1 and plans to reopen when there’s a vaccine.

Their customers consisted mostly of teachers and administration rather than students.

“We couldn’t make a go of it without Cal,” Skipper told The Epoch Times in an email.

John Samaras, co-owner of Café Nostos, said his wife and partner help him run the cafe. They only have 30 percent of the number of customers they had before.

He said he has two types of customers on a daily basis: those who live in the neighborhood—“those are the most loyal”—and students, who make up about 30–40 percent of his business.

His business did takeout when the pandemic hit. It did not close, and he plans to keep it open when the fall semester starts, too.

He said they spend a lot of time working for free, but people appreciate that they’re open.

“The alternative is to stay home—be closed and stay home and go crazy. So we figured we provide this service, sense of continuity here, normalcy, and [it] keeps us busy,” Samaras told The Epoch Times.

He said their landlord does not pressure them about rent, so they only have to worry about utilities and food purchases.

A business in Downtown Berkeley. (Daren Chou/The Epoch Times)
A business in Downtown Berkeley. (Daren Chou/The Epoch Times)

Mike, owner of Royal Ground Coffee, told The Epoch Times that they are normally very busy with all kinds of people—students, faculty, tourists, and residents. Now most of his customers are local residents.

They still have the same number of employees, but they work for 8 hours instead of the usual 12.

He said they are not making any money at all and have just enough to pay the employees, rent, utilities, and taxes.

“Everybody [tries] to survive, but how long can you try?” he said.

Dorothée Mitrani, owner of La Note Restaurant, informed The Epoch Times via email that distance learning has impacted their business by at least 50 percent. Their restaurant did not close, and they plan to stay open when the fall semester starts.

The Downtown Berkeley Association launched a Dine3Times promotion to help the struggling restaurants.

Participants can photograph three receipts from different restaurants between July 20 and Aug. 30. Then they will receive a poster and be entered to win a meal for two valued at $50.

In Berkeley, indoor retail was allowed to reopen in June, and outdoor dining was permitted on July 15.
On July 21, UC Berkeley announced that it will start the fall semester with distance learning, but it is preparing to use other methods of learning when conditions allow.
Ilene is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering Northern California news.
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