Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam | Credit: Paul Wellman File

Strangling someone, it turns out, is a lot harder than it looks on TV. I found this out while covering a murder trial a number of years ago involving two high school sweethearts. Spoiler alert: He strangled her. His defense was that of accidental homicide. They’d apparently grown weary of everyday sex, he explained, and had begun exploring the outer limits of erotic asphyxiation to liven things up. In other words, they’d choke each other while having sex, the goal being that they’d black out simultaneously while crescendoing into a heaving Hollywood climaxes. If this sounds too complicated, that’s because it was. She died. 

The defendant argued his girlfriend’s death was a tragic accident. The prosecuting attorney didn’t buy it. If it was an accident, he demanded, then why did the defendant roll the victim’s body up in a rug and haul it off to the Tajiguas dump?

Good question.

Even better, the prosecutor brought a forensic expert to the witness stand, who testified that you have to keep choking someone long after they’ve blacked out to actually do them in. 

I mention this scenario because it calls to mind exactly where we find ourselves with regard to COVID-19. It is, I would argue, the perfect metaphor. Right now, we have succeeded in choking out the disease just enough to achieve some degree of black out. But not nearly enough to do it in. 

I was disappointed that County Public Health czar Van Do-Reynoso did not bring up this grisly comparison when 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam all but accused her at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting of manipulating statistics to induce unwarranted fear and hysteria among the general public, not to mention the supervisors themselves. I remember Adam using the phrase “hair on fire”.

Adam’s point was that by releasing statistics detailing the total number of confirmed cases over time—526 as of Tuesday—Do Reynoso was exaggerating the true threat, painting a misleadingly alarmist picture. That’s because, Adam explained, more than 400 of the county’s COVID cases are now fully recovered, meaning we only have just over 100 cases left.

Adam, for those who don’t track the supervisors, is by far the most conservative supervisor and the only one to endorse Donald Trump. As the scion of one of the largest agricultural operations in the county, he has tangled ferociously with regulatory bureaucrats over the years and has the scar tissue to prove it. As a result, he tends to regard the government as the enemy and is a little quick, I suspect, to hear the sound of Black Helicopters on the horizon. 

Thumping in on Adam’s side was Santa Barbara’s most redoubtable reactionary, Andy Caldwell, the mouth that’s forever roaring. When you exclude the number of people behind bars or old folks living in nursing homes from the county’s COVID count, Caldwell argued, that leaves only 150 cases left. Is that enough, he demanded of the supervisors, to justify shutting down the economy for 450,000 people? Caldwell has been chief cook and bottle washer for the Coalition of Labor Agriculture and Business for about 30 years. He’s now running for Congress this November against incumbent Democrat Salud Carbajal. And he is a regular contributor to the editorial pages of the Santa Barbara News-Press

Once again, Do-Reynoso squandered her opportunity. She did not point out, for example, that Santa Barbara County has 250 licensed elder care facilities and 17 detention facilities. That’s a lot of potential for a lot of problems should COVID break out in any of these sites. It already has, as we all know,  in the federal penitentiary in Lompoc.

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But Do-Reynoso did take exception to Adam’s accusation. Her statistics clearly showed that Santa Barbara County is doing well with COVID cases right now. She pointed out that her numbers clearly show the rate of  COVID hospitalizations are holding steady or going down throughout the county. The same was true for patients assigned to intensive care or who’ve been put on ventilators. In fact, all these statistics appeared in the same report to which Adam objected.

If anything, I’d say, Do-Reynosa tended to underplay those statistics that might give cause for worry.

For example, of the county’s 526 cases, 105 of them proved severe enough to warrant hospitalization. In my book, that’s close to 20 percent. That ain’t nothing. Here’s another one: Out of all 58 counties in California, Santa Barbara — which accounts for only one percent of the state’s population — ranks 12 in terms of per capita number of positive COVID cases. Here’s one more. In terms of hospitalizations per capita, Santa Barbara County ranks seventh out of 58. That, likewise, ain’t nothing.

Here’s the deal: We all need to work. Desperately. I get it. In this context, reasonable people can and will disagree over what restrictions will be needed as we slowly turn on the lights.  We can and will argue about government mandates versus voluntary compliance. But only fools will argue that we’ve won the war against the invisible enemy. It’s too soon to declare “Mission Accomplished.” 

Last I looked, Los Angeles was blowing up with new COVID cases and new COVID deaths. As the crow flies, that’s just spitting distance. And any hope to jump-start our tourist economy, must count on visitors from Los Angeles escaping their pandemic shackles. 

Just saying.

I bring up Supervisor Adam because his questions sound very much like the viewpoints expressed by Santa Barbara News-Press owner Mrs. Wendy P. McCaw in last week’s front-page fatwa.  She complained that “the state of tyranny” imposed by public health officials and state governors was a ploy to get Trump. It was nothing more than pimping the pandemic for political purposes. “Our liberties are being stripped for what, a virus??” McCaw asked. “If this country can be put into this situation by a virus, what would it take to completely turn us into the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?” This editorial  triggered a dispute with the paper’s editor, Nick Masuda, who now no longer works there.   

Although Mrs. Wendy P. McCaw has long been a card-carrying member of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, I was both surprised and disappointed by this. McCaw is probably the most famous vegetarian in Santa Barbara and a very generous animal rights activist who genuinely loves her donkeys. I would have hoped McCaw — as one of only three newspaper owners to have endorsed Trump in 2016 — might have used her political capital to question why Trump invoked presidential powers to keep the nation’s meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses operating throughout the pandemic. Twenty plants had been shut down after at least 20 meatpacking workers died from COVID and 5,000 had been infected. 

I was hoping Animal Rightist Mrs. Wendy P. McCaw might have asked Trump why he would invoke his executive powers so Americans could eat more meat, but not do so to make sure we have enough COVID tests. It’s a reasonable question. If such tests had been made widely available from the start, perhaps the only solution would not have been to nosedive the economy. If such tests were made available now, maybe we could safely turn the lights on sooner and brighter. 

As far as the slaughterhouses go, the picture is relentlessly grim, as the oversupply of critters destined for the barbecue grill has led to a supply-chain solution known euphemistically as “depopulation.” This refers to the practice of killing millions of chickens by turning up the heat and turning off the fans at the same time and letting them quietly bake to death. Animal Rightist Mrs. Wendy McCaw might not care that much about prisoners or old people — and most certainly not about the workers — but I figured she might care more about chickens. 

No wonder Nick Masuda left. 

Let them eat meat. 

If we let COVID catch its breath, just remember this. The asphyxiation that happens as a result will be in no way erotically charged. The only heaving heaps left over will be those of patients who drowned on pus and blood and mucous. TV makes strangulation look a lot easier than it really is. We’re not done yet. Keep squeezing. 

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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