TICK-TOCK: “Life’s a beach and then you die.” I always hated that line — now more than ever, since it accurately depicts the increased risk we face as Santa Barbara enters the Fourth of July weekend, if we keep our beaches wide open.
The hot-potato issue of beach closures got unceremoniously sprung on the Santa Barbara City Council’s lap this Tuesday. Even so, the vote was close enough to eke out a 3-3 tie. But under council protocol, a tie doesn’t go to the baserunner; unless you affirmatively win, you lose.
In shying away from making what would have been yet another historically unprecedented decision — who in their right mind would want to shut down Santa Barbara’s beaches on the Fourth? — councilmembers relied on the advice of county health officers, who insist there’s no evidence that COVID-tainted droplets are transmitted in open air. In this case, I’d say the public health officers gave all the right answers, but to all the wrong questions.
I am hoping there is time enough for cooler heads to change their minds. And if not them, then bolder ones.
Here’s the deal. Los Angeles and Ventura Counties have just shut down their beaches for the Fourth. That leaves Santa Barbara County — and all our wonderful beaches — as the escape of choice for the teeming millions living to our south seeking respite.
“It’s going to be a scourge of tourists,” councilmember Kristen Sneddon not-so-delicately put it this Tuesday. Sneddon alluded to all the usual facts and figures that indicate California’s COVID numbers are off the charts in terms of new cases, new hospital admissions, new ICU admissions, and, most importantly, the strained capacity of the state’s medical infrastructure.
Santa Barbara County’s numbers are not remotely that bad, but they’re not remotely good enough either. We’ve been on the “watch list” for state public-health officials for a reason. Our number of active cases per 100,000 people is significantly higher than what public health gurus think it should be. Our active case count is 122.5 out of 100,000. The state’s action threshold is 112.
Yes, we are testing much more than ever — in fact, people now have to wait eight very long days to get their test results. Santa Barbara’s rate for positive test results, it should be noted, is higher than the statewide average. We’re at 6.1 percent, and the rest of the state is at 5.9. (That number two weeks ago, by the way, was 4.1 percent.)
Not to gild the lily here, but New England states now require visitors from California to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. The European Union won’t allow Americans to visit at all.
Sneddon was joined by councilmembers Alejandra Gutierrez and Oscar Gutierrez in calling for beach closures; they expressed alarm that face-mask rules and other social-distancing measures have been either nonexistent or utterly ineffective since State Street became a pedestrian promenade more than a month ago.
Making the case against beach closures were senior county administrators Barney Melekian and Nancy Anderson. Melekian hammered home the lack of evidence that beaches are a vector for the virus. He is, of course, totally correct.
But Melekian’s argument — which is really that of Public Health Officer Henning Ansorg — seems dangerously beside the point. I’m not as worried about people getting sick at the beach, where there tends to be an abundance of fresh air. I worry more about people getting sprayed when all those Fourth of July visitors hit the downtown bars and restaurants. Droplets tend to fan out in wider profusion in tightly packed, close-quartered establishments where patrons shout to be heard and sizable concentrations of alcohol tend to be consumed.
That’s the vector of transmission that needs to be short-circuited. Not the waves.
And we know that people are coming and they’re booking rooms in local hotels. Last weekend, city hotels boasted a 61 percent occupancy rate. According to Visit Santa Barbara, 50 out of 80 hotels and motels are accepting reservations. Rates, we are told, are pretty high, with some places requiring two- to three-night bookings.
Not to bag on visitors — who keep so many of us employed either directly or indirectly — but they tend to be less inclined to wear face masks when out in public. When you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation from everything.
The county’s track record here is not reassuring. For example, county health officials actively fought a face-mask ordinance for three weeks before capitulating to common sense.
Even now, as our new infection counts hit the 80s and 90s, county health officers gave the green light to massage therapy, nail salons, tattoo parlors, and genital piercers. But early this week, Governor Gavin Newsom forced Santa Barbara County — technically, it was only a recommendation — to reverse course and shut down its bars.
I would suggest it’s too late to get the bar genie back in the bottle. Exempt from this bar closure edict are all establishments that serve “dine-in” food. That’s pretty much all 27 of them. In the past month, all downtown bars secured permits to serve food — if only pickles, pretzels, and cheese — from the state’s Alcohol Control Board. Good luck telling them they can’t stay open.
Happy Fourth. Drink lots of sunscreen. And of course, wear a mask.
Postscript: If the definition of “the news” is a dog forever chasing its own tail, it appears this column has already been swallowed up by the pace of unfolding events. This Wednesday — well after the deadline for this column — Governor Gavin Newsom took unilateral executive action and effectively closed all indoor restaurants and bars in all of the counties on the state’s previously mentioned “watch list.” Santa Barbara County is one of them. That’s effective immediately. This just highlights the whiplash pace with which reality changes in our COVID-afflicted universe. Accordingly, anyone trying to write about it is advised to always wear a neck brace.
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