Santa Barbara County Declares Local Health Emergency

Social Distancing and Cancelations of Large Events Ordered Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

"Seat unavailable. We are practicing social distancing. Thank you," read signs on chairs at Thursday's press conference in the Santa Barbara County Administration Building. | Credit: Tyler Hayden

Santa Barbara County officials declared a local health emergency Thursday in response to the global coronavirus pandemic that has now killed 36 people across the United States, including four in California. They also enacted an order for social distancing, i.e., the minimizing of close contact between people. 

“This is the time we must all act in the best interest of our community and work together to contain this virus,” said Supervisor Gregg Hart.

Santa Barbara has still not reported any positive cases of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, officials emphasized. Six people, five in South County, have been tested and were all cleared. Nevertheless, the precautionary measures, which have been adopted by jurisdictions up and down the state, are necessary to help shield our most vulnerable neighbors, namely the sick and elderly, said Public Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso. 

“We all have a role in protecting each other’s health,” said Do-Reynoso. 

The distancing order dictates canceling or postponing nonessential large gatherings of 250 or more people, Do-Reynoso continued. That means music concerts, professional conferences, sporting events, and so on. Smaller gatherings held in venues that do not allow space of six or more feet between people should also be nixed. And those at higher risk, such as residents of nursing facilities, should limit get-togethers to no more than 10 people. The order will remain through the end of March, at which point health experts will re-evaluate its need.

Metropolitan Theatres is already limiting attendance at Santa Barbara movie theaters to no more than 100 viewers per screen. Restaurants are expected to receive guidance from authorities by the end of Friday on how to take precautions while continuing to serve customers. However, work, public transportation, food shopping, and other essential activities should and will continue for the foreseeable future, the experts said.

Dr. Paige Batson, Santa Barbara’s deputy director for community health, said officials are currently monitoring nine residents who’ve been flagged by the state as at-risk travelers. They’re being isolated in their homes for 14 days under the supervision of doctors checking for the tell-tale symptoms of the virus: fever, shortness of breath, and a cough. If the travelers don’t show any symptoms after 14 days, they’re released from quarantine. Sixty-one additional people have already been monitored and released. No additional information on those tested or monitored was provided.

While public schools will remain open, teachers are encouraged to get creative with social-distancing strategies in the classroom. School closures historically aren’t an effective measure against pandemics, said Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer. Plus, children have been shown to be particularly resilient against contracting this specific virus. Even if an outbreak were to occur at a single school, it’s likely just that campus would shut down, he said. Athletics that are part of the regular curriculum will continue. Only extracurricular activities will be suspended for the time being. 

Batson noted her office has fielded a number of questions from residents about testing. While testing services have expanded throughout California in recent days, with 17 labs now doing the work, officials are still struggling with capacity. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around, Batson said, and the tests that are available are being prioritized for people at greatest risk, such as those with lung, heart, or another chronic disease. 

“The main point here for everyone to understand is that COVID testing is not necessarily going to be provided upon request,” Batson said.

During Thursday’s press conference at the County Administrative Building, reporters — who made sure to practice social distancing with one another — asked about patient capacity in hospitals during a particularly bad flu season. In response, Dr. Jan Koegler, Public Health’s emergency preparedness manager, said health-care providers are well-prepared to handle whatever’s thrown at them. They have supplies and plans already in place, as well as 60 isolation rooms at the ready. 

Some, however, are already experiencing shortages in things like protective masks, which her department has so far been able to provide. The department is now asking for state help to refill their caches. It’s also coordinating with providers to make sure seniors living alone are cared for and that meal services continue. 

The local emergency declaration activated the county’s Joint Information Center, explained Kelly Hubbard, director of the Office of Emergency Management, as well as its public Call Center. Residents with questions are encouraged to call (833) 688-5551. The center will be open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday and likely over the weekend, depending on call volume, Hubbard said.

The county will also be installing temporary handwashing stations at 12 different locations in the coming days. Government meetings, including for the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, will take place as scheduled but with social distancing in mind, said Supervisor Hart. 

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