Santa Barbara County is beginning to taste the fruits of its social-distancing labor this week as it takes its first steps to safely reopen the economy.
On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the beginning of phase two in his four-phase plan to fully reopen the state. He listed specific “safe” types of retail businesses that can open for curbside pickup and drop off this Friday, like furniture stores, bookstores, music stores, toy stores, and florists.
How the reopening will look in Santa Barbara County is still unclear. Newsom said he would release more detailed guidelines Thursday, so Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso and Nancy Anderson, assistant CEO of the county, provided additional insight into Santa Barbara’s new future.
Do-Reynoso said that offices, shopping malls, and seated dining at restaurants will not be included in the businesses opening, but until the detailed list from the governor is released it is hard to know which specific Santa Barbara retail businesses can open Friday. What is certain is that the openings will be drop off and pickup only, meaning if a shoe store is open, a person can purchase and pick up a pair, but they cannot try them on in the store.
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She also pointed to a local health officer order for already open essential businesses, which was issued April 24, as a temporary guide for retail businesses expecting to reopen Friday.
“The governor also gave us more freedom and said that certain counties grouped together as a region can attest that they are ready to accelerate through phase two and open more businesses,” Do-Reynoso said.
She said that by partnering with neighboring counties and creating a “readiness plan” and a “containment plan” that meet the state’s criteria, Santa Barbara County can get the governor’s green light to decide on its own how fast it opens up more retail businesses.
In a separate but parallel reopening effort, Anderson reported the progress the county’s business stakeholder team has made to develop a Santa Barbara-specific reopening plan that’s in line with the governor’s criteria. She said 25 or so stakeholder groups made up of local industry experts and community leaders are meeting this week to discuss reopening plans before presenting their input to a medical panel for review.
She estimated about 300 stakeholders were involved from sectors like education, faith institutions, lodging, agriculture, building and development, beverage and restaurant industries, and others. Although there will be time for public input soon, she said the roundtable discussions are informal and not subject to the Brown Act, therefore most discussions are not required to be open to the public.
The county contracted with REACH, a nonprofit economic development think tank, to work with the stakeholders to create the reopening plan. Formerly known as the Hourglass Project, REACH is the same group that San Luis Obispo County used to adopt its own reopening plan.
“This project was supposed to go for about four to six weeks, but it’s been very expedited,” Anderson said. “Starting next week we will be kind of finalizing and wrapping up what we’re doing with our REACH project. We’ll have a draft of guidelines for each sector ready to be reviewed by the medical panel by next week.”
The gradual reopening comes just one week after many residents throughout the county joined a larger national movement to reopen the economy. Multiple protests throughout Santa Barbara County took place over the last week. Many protested on foot, like in Santa Maria, while other protestors in Santa Barbara city took to their cars. Signs with messages like “Remember the Constitution” and “Open Our County” were flashed in opposition to the economic shutdown.
Though the timing is impeccable, the recent protests did not motivate the reopening announcement. The county’s commitment to following social-distancing orders has been largely successful and is the true driving force behind opening more businesses.
Do-Reynoso said the number of active cases in the county has been declining steadily for the past 14 days, one of the governor’s requirements for reopening. Maintaining a hospital surge capacity of at least 25 percent is another requirement, which Santa Barbara County has more than surpassed with 699 available beds and an alternative shelter plan already established.
Even increased testing, which has been one of the county’s greatest hurdles to jump, is quickly approaching the governor’s standards. Do-Reynoso compared the county to a ratio that Harvard put out which indicates Santa Barbara County would need to test 684 people per day to open up businesses. Though the county currently tests 126 people a day, three community testing sites — the first opened Tuesday — will add an additional 390 tests a day, five days a week.
She said the county’s five hospitals are well-equipped with personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, which just a few weeks ago were in desperately low supply. All in all, it seemed that the county’s progress is taking it toward reopening the economy.
But not all agree. Supervisor Peter Adam, who has been a critic of the prolonged economic shutdown, felt that the gradual reopening is not fast enough.
“The time has come to focus on restoring economic health. Our goal in the beginning was to bend the rate of new infections down. That happened,” Adam said. “We should have declared victory and begun reopening our economy, but that process has yet to begin.”
He said he feels the state has “moved the goal post” for criteria to reopen.
“We seem to be switching standards for reopening from the number of confirmed cases to focus on the number of tests we can perform,” he continued. “This is going to lead to an artificial spike in documented cases. … The disease is far more widespread than previously thought and far less lethal than predicted.”
He went on to say that the 699 available hospital beds prove that this is no longer an emergency, and that many people will have the virus and never show symptoms or become sick enough to be hospitalized.
In Santa Barbara County, about one in five people who tested positive for COVID-19 have been hospitalized. Out of the 544 confirmed cases so far, 105 of them were hospitalized.
The rest of the Board of Supervisors appeared satisfied with the Do-Reynoso’s report and took the progress and step toward reopening the economy as positive news. The board, including Adam, unanimously voted to accept the report.
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