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It may still be premature to say the sky has collapsed where COVID-19 is concerned, but the Santa Barbara County supervisors spent much of this Tuesday crafting as large and as bulletproof an umbrella as they could, in anticipation of more bad news in the months ahead.
With California and Florida neck and neck for the dubious distinction of posting the most new confirmed COVID cases, California Governor Gavin Newsom just hit the brakes on the state’s economic reawakening, ordering that all tattoo parlors, massage parlors, nail salons, barber shops, and hair salons be shut down, as well as all indoor dining and drinking establishments. In Santa Barbara County, Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg followed suit this Tuesday.
In response to predictions by the World Health Organization that the rate of COVID-19 infection will continue to spiral further out of control, the county supervisors approved spending up to $1.2 million this Tuesday to lease the empty Sears department store — 72,000 square feet — located at La Cumbre Plaza to create space for 200 additional medical beds for non-COVID cases, freeing up space at Cottage Hospital for a possible influx of COVID patients.
For the time being, Cottage and other county hospitals have more than enough capacity to meet the existing demand, but Santa Barbara County’s rate of new infections has increased by 43 percent in the past two weeks. The number of positive tests has grown dramatically and is now 20 percent higher than the state threshold for what’s acceptable. Thirty-one people have died. It’s true only 8 percent of the county’s 4,140 positive cases are currently active — the vast majority having recuperated. And though 66 percent of the county’s medical surge beds and 63 percent of its intensive care units are currently occupied, most are not by COVID patients.
Beyond that, county administrators have also hammered out a deal with their counterparts in San Luis Obispo County to secure another 250 overflow medical beds in a pop-up medical center already created on the Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo campus at no cost.
That facility — built four months ago at a cost of $3 million — would be more conveniently located for residents of Santa Maria where roughly two-thirds of the county’s COVID cases have been documented. San Luis Obispo, which has been blessed with exceptionally modest COVID numbers to date, built a temporary medical facility capable of handling more than 900 patients. To date, it has yet to treat anyone. Barney Melekian, an executive administrator for the County of Santa Barbara, likened the deal to “an insurance policy,” stressing, “We have not come close to even needing it.”
To the extent there was any quibbling from the supervisors’ dais, it fell to 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who wondered whether the Sears site could be used to provide emergency housing for tenants who might find themselves displaced as the pandemic drags on.
Williams also led the charge to earmark $2 million of the $46 million Santa Barbara County recently secured in federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act dollars — designated to help small businesses and local governments defray COVID-related costs — for emergency rental-housing assistance designed to help economically distressed tenants remain in their homes. Supervisor Joan Hartmann worried $2 million might be a little steep. Williams countered, “You can’t tell me when we just got $49 million, we don’t have $2 million for our renters.”
Despite a few emotional outbursts reflecting ideological differences between the supervisors, the vote was unanimous. Even Supervisor Peter Adam, who typically votes against tenant protection measures, supported it. As the sole supporter of President Donald Trump on a board of Trump bashers, Adam took delight in stating, “I want thank the president for sending us this money.”
Because the CARES Act funds have to be spent in relatively short order, Supervisor Gregg Hart expressed logistical misgivings whether the funds will still be on hand when tenants need it most. But with federal unemployment benefits set to expire in two weeks — with no follow-up relief measures yet in sight — Williams and Hart both agreed the real economic pain to be inflicted by COVID could be right around the corner. “This might be the cliff,” they both said.
For about 45 farm-labor-rights advocates affiliated with the organization CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) who showed up to testify, however, that cliff is right now. Farmworkers, brought to Santa Maria as part of a guest worker program known as H2A, are already feeling the impacts. Twenty percent of Santa Maria’s COVID cases are farmworkers, and Santa Maria residents make up two-thirds of the county’s total caseload.
Farmworkers, one speaker testified, can’t pick crops via Zoom, and they can’t afford the luxury of staying home from work. Many large agricultural employers, the supervisors were told, forced sick employees to work. Those that didn’t would be fired. Many live in cramped, dorm-like motel rooms — four to a unit — and then are driven to the fields in large vans. The opportunity for social distancing was nonexistent, and workers were not told of their rights to take sick time.
Longtime CAUSE organizer Hazel Davalos charged that a 51-year-old employee of Alco Harvesting named Leo Begario Chavez-Alvarado died after testing positive for COVID. His job, Davalos stated, was to drive workers from Mexico to Santa Maria to pick crops for a large agricultural company. He lived in a motel set aside to house workers for that company, she said. Cal/OSHA, the federal Labor Department, and County Public Health were investigating the circumstances of his death, Davalos claimed, but she urged more aggressive inspections and greater local enforcement. Large companies, she charged, retaliated against employees who insisted on safe working conditions.
Supervisors Lavagnino and Adam — who runs one of the lager agriculture concerns in the county — took exception. Lavagnino said the numbers cited by CAUSE sounded worse than they actually were. Twenty-two percent of all jobs in Santa Maria, he noted, were farm jobs. The county clinics were totally free, and they don’t ask questions about legal status. Given how crowded farmworker housing was — not to mention the bus rides to and from work — Lavagnino suggested the safest place for most farmworkers was out in the fields. “I don’t want us to laser focus in on just one group,” he cautioned. “There’s a lot of people out there suffering.”
While the supervisors took no official action, Williams “implored” Public Health officials to increase their presence while praising them for having stepped up their efforts already.
Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso stated her department is now doing more enforcement — sending out notices of violation, for example — in addition to the strictly educational outreach it initially did. It was not made clear, however, whether that enforcement was taking place now or if it was about to start.
Adam has argued against the quarantine, insisting it inhibits the development of natural immunity. “I’ve kind of been hoping I’d get it,” he stated. Lavagnino had questioned public health officials about swap meets that take place at the Santa Maria Fairpark and whether they intended to enforce social distancing protocols. The stalls are packed tightly together and people attending — many farmworkers — likewise. “If you want to get coronavirus,” he said to Adam, “this would be a good place to get it.”
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+.