Walnut Creek's restaurants, closed for the last several months because of the pandemic, can now apply for loans of up to $10,000. (Photo via Walnut Creek Downtown/Facebook)

A grant program seen as a “lifeline” to help Walnut Creek’s restaurant community, decimated by the various ravages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, could place direct aid in restaurateurs’ hands by mid-February.

The Walnut Creek City Council this week directed city staff to establish a program to help the city’s 200 or so restaurants by offering cash grants of either $5,000 or $10,000. Restaurant owners would compete for grant money, based on several criteria, including number of employees and the extent of economic damage caused by COVID-19. The restaurants would have to be either independently owned, or chain franchises with local ownership. The money could be used for whatever purpose needed, including paying rent, paying employees and buying any needed equipment.

The city’s half dozen or so bars would also be eligible to compete for the grants.

Even though many businesses — small retail gyms, spas and other personal service providers — have been decimated by the restrictions that come with Contra Costa County’s COVID-related health orders, council members said restaurants are generally more labor-intensive, adding an extra hurdle to their economic viability. But council members said that if the restaurant grant program is successful, a second grant program phase, including more types of businesses, could be considered.

Councilwoman Loella Haskew said the health of restaurants, especially the 130 downtown, is also important because they help attract shoppers to the city’s downtown business district, boosting those businesses. “It’s important that we keep that particular sector going,” said Haskew, noting that preserving those businesses also preserves sales tax income for the city.

Restaurateurs agreed. “Any money that we can get is appreciated,” said Jason Yamasaki, director of operations for the restaurant Sasa. Yamasaki said the restaurant spent $6,000 on heaters for outdoor dining, which were used for only two weeks before outdoor dining, too, ended temporarily on Dec. 6 because of the regional stay-at-home order. “Our revenue is down, but our costs are going up and up and up.”

The program will be funded by $500,000 from the city’s fiscal 2019-20 budget.

“In practical reality, we can’t help every business, we don’t have unlimited funds,” Teri Killgore, Walnut Creek’s assistant city manager, told the council Tuesday.

City Manager Dan Buckshi said that if the council approves a final plan in January, one with these relatively simple criteria, it will be mid-February at the earliest before any restaurant owners see grant money. Council members acknowledged that may be too late for some of those owners. Tony Dudum, owner of the 1515 Restaurant and Lounge, echoed that.

“I know of several restaurants that are literally on the brink, on the verge of closing down,” Dudum said.