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)

Calling the move more of a life preserver than a lifeboat, the Walnut Creek City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a grant program to help keep local restaurants afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic until they can again host on-premises diners.

Full-service restaurants can now apply for grants of up to $10,000, and bars and restaurants considered “limited-service” or “fast casual” can receive up to $5,000 to help pay for rent, payroll, improvements and winterization of outdoor dining areas, construction of takeout windows and COVID-19-related indoor improvements.

The council had discussed the program’s basics in mid-December, but a key change made since then was to fund the program with $1 million from the city’s general fund, rather than the $500,000 originally planned. The bigger cash infusion, Assistant City Manager Teri Killgore said, is to help more restaurants, not to give the same number of restaurants each more money.

“It’s not going to save any one restaurant, but given our good fortune with some year-end savings, it seemed like the responsible thing to do what we could to help our businesses,” Killgore said.

There are approximately 200 restaurants in Walnut Creek. Collette Hanna, the city’s economic development manager, estimated about 150 of them would qualify for grants based on basic criteria needed to qualify.

Those include establishments in operation with a brick-and-mortar Walnut Creek location since at least June 2019 that are independently owned and able to show their revenues have dropped at least 25 percent since the pandemic began in early spring. The city’s hope, Hanna said, is to provide grants to between 100 and 125 restaurants.

Council members acknowledged restaurants aren’t the only type of business in trouble. Councilwoman Cindy Darling said gyms, personal care businesses and others were suffering greatly, too, during the pandemic.

“We don’t have enough money to solve all the problems,” she said.

Killgore said restaurants have been affected in a more tangible way than most other business types. Also, “Our downtown is heavily dependent on restaurants for its vitality,” she said.

Killgore also noted restaurants also make up a significant share of the city’s sales tax revenue, approximately 17 percent.

City Councilwoman Cindy Silva said, “I know the business community is truly going to appreciate this, as will the community at large.”

The city will start taking applications from restaurant owners Thursday, and it will be mid-February at the earliest before any restaurant owners see grant money.