Santa Barbara City Council Declares an Emergency and Listens to Cottage Doctor

Stay Calm, Infectious Disease Doctor David Fisk Cautions

On Tuesday evening, Public Health Deputy Director Paige Batson, pictured here with County Health Official Dr. Henning Ansorg on March 6, announced medical providers were prepared to erect tents and utilize empty hotel rooms in the COVID-19 "surge." | Credit: Erica Urech

Dr. David Fisk is a preternaturally coolheaded man who calmly delivered some coolheaded news to the Santa Barbara City Council, where several of its members were anything but cool. Fisk runs Cottage Health’s infection prevention and control, which makes him point person for the health system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as it makes its way into Santa Barbara. Fisk was pressed by several councilmembers this Tuesday, March 17, who asked whether Santa Barbara should be taking more aggressive, proactive steps to combat the virus. Does he think the city should follow the example of the City of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Councilmember Meagan Harmon asked, where all bars and restaurants have been shut down, and residents have been ordered to shelter in place? His answer was a decisive: “No, I do not.”

“Our situation here is very, very different from the Bay Area,” he said. “What is proactive in one community may not apply in another community.” Since Santa Barbara has had no deaths from the coronavirus, with no patients even hospitalized yet, Fisk outlined a new protocol the medical community had crafted to more clearly outline which patients would be tested for COVID-19, under what conditions, and with which test. This should help doctors decide when to prescribe the test. Some had been hesitating to do so because there were so few testing kits.

Fisk outlined steps being taken to increase production of the test kits. He added that Cottage has solidified its supply chain over protective gear needed by medical professionals who were taking samples for the test. It just secured 3,000 new face shields in the last 24 hours, he said. Inventory of gowns, gloves, battery-powered respirators, and masks have been solidified.

After Fisk’s presentation, councilmembers voted to ban bars and restaurants ​— ​except for to-go and takeout orders. They also got an earful from an economic consultant who outlined how Santa Barbara’s hospitality industry ​— ​which accounts for 17 percent of the city’s jobs ​— ​is about to take a massive hit. He also described how small businesses could find relief, in the form of unemployment insurance or Small Business Administration loans. The council also declared a local emergency, thus empowering City Administrator Paul Casey with exceptional authority to enlist the city police and fire departments in enforcing new rules promulgated by the Santa Barbara County Health Officer.

Only Councilmember Eric Friedman expressed any discomfort over the concentrated expansion of governmental authority. Although Friedman ultimately voted with the council majority, he cautioned against getting out too far ahead of the state and the county in terms of rules and regulations. He worried about the implications when it came to civil liberties, and he worried that different rules in different jurisdictions might prove to be confusing. If Santa Barbara could ban bars and restaurants to discourage sizable groups of people from gathering, why not ban church services, too? he asked. Most of the people attending services, he noted, were older and more susceptible to the virus.

Much of the discussion, however, was focused on new emergency ordinances that the council hatched this week but will vote on next week having to do with tenant protections. The council voted unanimously for a series of measures designed to ban landlords from evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent because of the pandemic until the end of May. Tenants, the council tentatively decided, should be given six months to pay their landlords back for lost rent. The council also voted to extend similar protections to businesses who get behind on their rent to commercial landlords. Mayor Cathy Murillo said she would write a letter to the big commercial landlords asking them to offer their tenants a reprieve on their rents for at least a month. In the meantime, City Administrator Casey announced City Hall is offering all workers two weeks worth of paid sick leave. Boards and commissions will temporarily cease to meet until new virtual ways to convene can be devised.

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