City of Santa Barbara Closes Beach Parking

City and County Scramble to Figure Out What’s Permitted and What’s Banned

A sign outside Leadbetter beach parking lot. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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Santa Barbara city officials have shut down beachfront parking lots for the Fourth of July weekend, just one day after the City Council deadlocked 3-to-3 over whether city beaches should be shut down. The decision to close down the parking lots was designed to discourage residents from Los Angeles and Ventura counties — where all beaches have been shut down — from visiting Santa Barbara in hopes of availing themselves of city beaches.

With untold thousands expected to descend on Santa Barbara for firework-free festivities, city and county officials are scrambling to figure which activities are still permitted and which ones are banned. For example, County Public Health officials have just decreed that all bars throughout the county will be shut down regardless of if they have secured permits for dine-in food service, according to Nina Johnson in the City Administrator’s office. Until that recent clarification, city officials were operating on the belief that bars would be banned from serving any customers indoors, but that bars with food permits could serve outside. That, apparently, is no longer the case.

Nothing is remotely as simple as it sounds. For example, the waterfront parking ban is designed to target people hoping to use Leadbetter Beach. But the ban is supposed to exempt employees and customers of businesses operating on Stearns Wharf and the Waterfront, as well as liveaboards and fisher folk. How anyone will make the distinction has yet to be seen.

The council heard this Tuesday that how city lifeguards, waterfront workers, harbor patrol officers, and, of course, the ubiquitous red-shirted Ambassadors — all 12 of them — will be dispatched along the waterfront to politely promote more scrupulous observation of social distancing. They, too, will be sent up State Street to make sure visitors are wearing masks. Those that are not will be quietly — and politely — referred to two pop-up tents on State Street — one at the 500 block and one at the 800 block — where city employees will be passing out free masks.

Beach access remains one of Santa Barbara’s most reliable hot-button issues for which there is no safe middle ground. The council’s failure to come to terms with beach closure this coming weekend has done little to slake the storm of concerned, angry, and irate residents who wish to give city officials an earful via phone, email, and text. Most callers are upset the beaches were not closed.

Among city officials — such as City Administrator Paul Casey — there was skepticism that a beach ban could be effectively enforced. Visitors, Casey noted, have proved exceptionally determined and ingenious in the past when efforts have been made to block them from city beaches. City cops are allegedly loath to become embroiled in such enforcement quagmires, especially now in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in which “defund the police” calls rang in the air. He made the call based on the emergency powers granted to the City Administrator.

Social distancing enforcement has suffered from lack of clear leadership or chain of command. Involved in it have been the county’s Public Health Department, Environmental Health Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, the City of Santa Barbara’s Police Department, and the city’s Parking Department. No agency, to date, has taken the lead in enforcement, meaning a whole slew of confusing and perhaps contradictory rules and regulations have relied on the honor system and voluntary compliance. That seemed to work as long as Santa Barbara residents — like those statewide — were effectively bending the curve. But as new cases have ballooned to alarming new levels at the same time businesses have re-opened and holiday crowds have begun to arrive, it’s clear to everyone that the honor system no longer suffices. Less clear is who or what will fill the void.

In the meantime, the zoo is open to outdoors visitors, but batting cages, bowling alleys, and miniature golf courses will remain shut down for the next three weeks. Regular golf, however, is allowed, as is tennis. By the time you’ve read this far, no doubt, new guidelines and rules will have been promulgated.

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