Can Santa Barbara’s Economy Be Turned Back On Safely?

350 Stakeholders Studied How It Can Be Done

Sheriff Bill Brown | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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IS IT SAFE? Initially, I was impressed. Now I’m not sure. Either way, I’m still wondering which one of the 350 stakeholders who spent last week Zooming 27 times was the one who realized genital piercing was a concern when crafting plans to bring Santa Barbara’s economy back from the dead. Yet there it was on page 58 of an 80-page report dubbed “The RISE Guide,” otherwise known as “A Local Supplement to the Governor’s Resilience Road Map.” Did I ever tell you how much I hate the word “resilience”?

I do. 

Who knew genital piercing was a big enough potential vector to warrant its own special mention? Yet there it was ​— ​Subsection F in Section 5: “Prohibit procedures that include tattooing or piercing genitals or other respiratory anatomy such as the lips and nose until the Shelter-at-Home Order is modified, replaced or lifted.” Naturally, this conjured images of angry live-free-and-die genital piercers storming City Hall wearing nothing but their piercings ​— ​dyed red, white, and blue for the occasion, of course ​— ​with AK-47s strapped to their glistening backs.

That, at least, would be different. 

The inclusion of such piercings had the desired subliminal effect. It reassured me that these people ​— ​whoever the hell they were ​— ​must know what they were talking about if they’d gotten into such specificity. And by page 58, I was having some doubts. The report was all about reopening the economy while being poised, vigilant, and prepared to “tap the brakes” should we get a boomerang resurgence of COVID cases. After all, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, it was the second and third waves that did the most damage. Statewide, the numbers are not going up. But they’re not going down either. Last I looked, L.A. County was still smoking, and our resilience plan relies upon an infusion of tourist dollars brought by day trippers from L.A. 


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Maybe I’ve eaten too much fear over the past two months, but the verbiage in the RISE report detailing exactly how and when we tap those brakes felt squishier than a wad of wet toilet paper. There were way too many recommendations and suggestions for my comfort level, and not nearly enough black-and-white, line-in-the-sand statistical thresholds for when we pull the rip cord. The idea of a lot of government officials representing even more government agencies hashing it all out in the moment, strangely, did not reassure.

In reality, maybe nothing can. 

But in that context, I took momentary comfort knowing the RISE report on “Resilience” ​— ​prepared with help from a group called Reach ​— ​had examined the issue down to its last pubic hair. On the flip side ​— ​in Section 4 ​— ​it devoted considerable ink to when churches could reopen. Zooming for the Lord is fine and dandy, I suppose, but it does not accommodate the transmission of spiritual mojo better known as transubstantiation. In other words, no body and blood, no wafers and wine. And that, after all, is the punch line of the whole thing. 

Maybe that’s really the best we got ​— ​a hope and a prayer.

The reality is that Santa Barbarans have done a really great job at this. By cutting off ours noses to spite our faces, we’ve managed to protect our hospitals from being overrun. When it comes to resilience ​— ​or rubbing up against things against which we must resiliate ​— ​we’ve become old pros. Our accessory of choice has become the loudly colored gummy wristband that denotes a perversely positive 805 attitude in the face of yet another spirit-crushing catastrophe. Droughts, fires, exploding boats, mass shootings, we’ve done ’em all. When it comes to collective duck and cover and mass fire drills, we’re experts. This week, coincidentally, marks the fifth anniversary of the late, great Plains All American Pipeline blowout ​— ​in which 140,000 gallons burst loose and gummed up the ocean because of sustained corporate neglect. In retrospect, that disaster now seems almost cute and whimsical.

Still, certain numbers stick in my craw. By the time you read this, the United States will have lost ​— ​how’s that for a flaccid euphemism ​— ​about 94,000 people to COVID. Sure, many of them were old or overweight or had underlying conditions. Maybe ​— ​as the Live Free and Die crowd likes to say ​— ​it was time for them to go. But that number also happens to be the population of Santa Barbara, minus the tourists and out-of-town workers who commute here. Look around and imagine everyone you see being dead. Don’t forget to look in the mirror, because you’re gone too. That’s what 94,000 looks like.

The real reality is that there are certain genies that just can’t be crammed back in the bottle. When 450,000 groundhogs ​— ​the population of Santa Barbara County ​— ​see their shadow, there’s no way any public health officers are going to cajole them back into their hole. As emergency freak-out planners know, there’s only so many bites of the apple to be had.

There’s a good reason that County Supervisor Gregg Hart studies Sheriff Bill Brown so intently during their joint press conferences together on COVID. Brown called the shots about evacuations during the Thomas Fire, still one of the worst in state history. It fell to Brown to say when people had to flee their homes and it fell to him to say when they could return. History will be second-guessing Brown forever ​— ​and for good reason ​— ​but there are no how-to manuals for certain things. On December 19, 2017, Brown ended Montecito’s mandatory evacuation and allowed people to return home just in time for Christmas. Two weeks later, Brown ​— ​and umpteen other big shots ​— ​urged and ordered yet another evacuation, anticipating a massive debris flow. Some people would have gotten out if the warnings had been clearer. Some people simply refused to budge; they had evacuation fatigue. We know how that movie ended: 23 dead. 

Resilience. I really hate that word.


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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