County Supervisor Peter Adam | Credit: Paul Wellman

Many Santa Barbarans are growing increasingly restless each new week the statewide stay-at-home order remains in place. As the county enters week five of the pandemic-induced shutdown, many residents’ primary fears have shifted from contracting the virus to not being able to afford food and housing for their families.

Nancy Anderson, assistant CEO of the county, presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday strategies for slowly reopening the county’s economy and modifying the stay-at-home order. She was alongside Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso, who, for the first time, presented a demographic breakdown of the county’s COVID-19 cases, revealing a major disparity between positive Latino cases compared to their representation in the population. 

“Over the next four to six weeks, we will be building a strategic phased opening plan that complies with national and state guidance,” Anderson said. The “we” she refers to includes a group of several county staff, a representative from county schools, and a panel of medical directors. 

She said that Reach, a nonprofit economic development think tank, would be facilitating stakeholder involvement and helping to create the phased plan. Formerly known as the Hourglass Project, Reach is the same group helping San Luis Obispo County with a similar reopening plan. The plan is in preparation for when Governor Newsom lifts the order, not in defiance of it.

But not all of the supervisors agreed with keeping the planning in-line with state and federal orders. Peter Adam, 4th District supervisor, contended that the order is causing more harm than good.

“We are in the process of self-inducing a depression,” Adam said. “I would recommend at least interpreting the governor’s order as liberally as possible and open our economy as soon as possible, fully. If not, simply defy it and make him come and enforce it because I think it’s void for vagueness among other things.”

He said the COVID-19 pandemic is “no worse than the regular flu” in terms of death count, and that people who are without income or are losing their businesses are going to suffer more in the long term if the economy doesn’t reopen soon. This sentiment is a popular one shared by pockets of right-wing protesters throughout the nation who are demanding COVID-19 restrictions be lifted.

“We have a responsibility to future generations to reopen this thing,” Adam said. “Yes, some are going to get sick, and that’s unfortunate. But people are going to get sick in any case, and we can’t stop that.”

Several members of the public agreed with Adam. 

“We cannot wait for a stakeholder advisory group and delay our transition into the next phase of the pandemic by four to six weeks,” said Cori Hayman at public comment. “The data doesn’t support this…. We do not have the luxury to wait another four to six weeks to slowly open the economy. As the UCSB economic forecast made clear last week, our county is in economic collapse, and other people are not getting the health care they need for non-COVID-19 conditions.

“Everyday we live under the stay-at-home order makes things worse for our county, not better.”

Members of the public asked why Santa Barbara County is maintaining the original stay-at-home order when it appears neighboring San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties are not. County CEO Mona Miyasato said that while it looks that way, those counties actually self-imposed harsher restrictions earlier in the pandemic and are now stripping those, but they are still maintaining the same stay-at-home order Santa Barbara follows. For example, Ventura County closed its beaches despite it not being a requirement of the governor’s order but has now reopened them. 

The supervisors also addressed the most critical issue for opening back up: funding. Though the full financial hit is still unclear, last week 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart projected a total loss of about $37-$40 million. The county is not eligible to receive funds from the federal CARES Act because its population is under 500,000. And despite making the list of the top 15 counties with the greatest number of cases and top 10 counties with the greatest number of ICU patients (as of April 15), Santa Barbara will be the only one on the list that won’t receive CARES money.

So the supervisors voted unanimously (including reluctant Adam) to send this letter to Governor Gavin Newsom today asking for the cash to make his six-step framework for reopening the economy possible. Step one is the highest hurdle to make because it requires a substantial increase in testing capacity, which has so far been difficult to come by.

Public Health Director Do-Reynoso also presented the first-ever breakdown of the county’s positive cases by ethnicity. In order to retrieve the data, public health had to interview past and current COVID-19 patients and were unable to track all of them. She said the department was able to touch base with 307 out of the 416 cases — about 74 percent. Those include 86 cases from the Lompoc Prison.

Of the 416 cases, 61 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 31 percent are white, and all others account for two percent or less of the population so are statistically insignificant. When you compare them to their representation in the county overall, the Latino population is overrepresented in COVID-19 cases, and the white population is underrepresented. 

Latinos make up 48 percent of the population despite being 61 percent of the cases. The white population accounts for 43 percent of the population, though they are only 31 percent of the total positive cases.

“I am struck by the fact that they demonstrate structural equity issues,” Supervisor Hart said. “Historically our communities of color and our immigrant communities haven’t had equitable access to preventive care, culturally responsive health information, or jobs that allow them to socially distance or access to paid leave.”

When Supervisor Joan Hartmann asked what else is contributing to the inequities and what can be done to alleviate them, Do-Reynoso said her team has already been working on it.

“The Immigrant Public Health Task Force is asking all of those questions,” Do-Reynoso said. She also pointed to public health’s new website that is solely in Spanish, the updates and information tweeted in Spanish in real time, and the county’s partners in interpretation as ways to ensure the county’s Spanish-speaking and Latino communities are receiving care and resources for the pandemic.

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