Late on Tuesday morning, July 28, Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo hit the 700 block of State Street armed with a boxful of face masks — more properly known in these COVID times as face coverings. As she has on other occasions, she was about to hand out masks to people not wearing them. As usual, it was a quiet endeavor. By that, I mean no brass band accompanied her, just Independent photographer Daniel Dreifuss to document the moment.
Most people, she said, will accept them with sheepish embarrassment. One woman, intent on a cell phone conversation, made it clear she was not to be interrupted. A homeless guy, by contrast, was happy to get a little protection, and Murillo was happy to offer him three. On previous mask distribution outings, she has met with heated resistance, sometimes getting the F-bombs dropped on her head. This day she got a mouthful from a tall, stringy guy in his twenties dressed in black, smoking what looked to be a hand-rolled cigarette. He was ideologically opposed to face masks, he declared, and there was no scientific evidence they did any good. And besides, they made it hard to breathe.
Unlike the cigarette he was smoking.
Smoking, of course, is a deeply personal choice, and as such must be respected no matter how stupid it is. But I have an ornery friend in his eighties who argues that the personal choice of others to not wear face masks while walking up and down the great State Street promenade should end where his baseball bat begins. Given what’s happening with COVID in this country, I think he makes a compelling case.
All these years, and I never even knew he liked baseball.
On the same Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council addressed the obvious question of mask enforcement on State Street. To its credit — sort of — the council voted to authorize the issuance of enforcement citations for people refusing to wear masks on State Street and other outdoor locations. The caveat here is that such citations will be issued “only as a last resort,” only in “high-risk locations,” and only after all efforts at educational compliance have failed. Although the vote was unanimous, the final action was mushy and threatens to go the way of all legislation written on wet toilet paper: down the drain.
It should be noted that city cops viscerally hate the idea of getting into the business of face mask enforcement, and the city’s red-shirted State Street Ambassadors may lack the training, legal authority, and attitude to pull it off. Yet these are the two agencies the council charged with making enforcement happen. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s vote goes down as a positive step forward — tiny, incremental, and timid as it appears to be.
As for my ornery friend, it turns out he doesn’t like baseball after all; what he likes to do is breathe. If he gets infected, he’s likely dead.
As of this writing, more than 150,000 Americans have now died from COVID. Back when this nightmare started, it’s worth remembering how skeptics warned against “overreaction.” After all, they insisted on repeating, the common flu carries off about 50,000 people every year. In other words, that’s life. This type of indifference calls to mind Joseph Stalin’s sublime cynicism when he reportedly observed that one dead person constitutes a tragedy, but a million is just a statistic.
Well, guess what? Right now, the uncommon COVID has killed more people than all the flu deaths, car crashes, suicides, and homicides in the United States in a given year — combined. And COVID managed to inflict all this death in just five months. Those other miseries had 12 months to rack up their body bags.
Here in Santa Barbara County, we remain “lucky” to have had just 32 fatalities, and COVID cases have not exceeded the number of our hospital beds, ICU units, or ventilators. But we happen to live spitting distance from Los Angeles, which accounts for more than half of California’s total death count of over 8,700.
Not everyone who gets infected gets sick. Not everyone who gets sick dies. But here in Santa Barbara, our numbers are moving dramatically in the wrong direction. One week before Memorial Day, we were averaging 13 new cases a day. Two weeks later, it was 25. Since then, every two weeks our numbers have hop-scotched like a frog on speed: to 60, to 96, and finally — last Friday — to 121. The California Department of Public Health’s official “Watch List” for COVID-19 cases is seven per 100,000 residents (S.B. County has over 400,000).
The Santa Barbara County public health authorities and our elected officials have insisted on a strictly educational and honor system approach with doctrinaire rigidity and stubborn recalcitrance. Why? Such an approach ceased to fit the facts months ago. Remember all the anguished hand-wringing that ensued back in March whether we could—or should—prevent cruise ships from disembarking?
At Tuesday’s council meeting, it looked as if this recalcitrance would continue. City Attorney Ariel Calonne and Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez both suggested offering unmasked people to choose between taking a free mask or getting a citation is tantamount to “stop and frisk.” What? And it was beyond absurd for Councilmember Eric Friedman to liken administrative citations for not wearing masks to the Gestapo tactics of the Third Reich. Really? Presumably Friedman, normally not a hysteric, was tired — it was a long meeting.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, who leads the charge for enforcement, said police would not hesitate to take action if someone walked down State Street wearing no pants. So why not for no mask?
It’s not rocket science, folks. Other cities, such as Monterey, have already done this. Up there, City Hall has dispatched two code enforcement officers—wearing red shirts and khaki pants—to Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, where there are so many tourists that it’s physically impossible to maintain six feet of separation.
For seven days a week, these two—not cops, by the way—pass out about 5,000 free masks and make sure local businesses comply with emergency measures. On rare occasion, they also issue tickets, about 20 so far to businesses and about a half dozen to individuals. What happens if people refuse to stop? Here, City Attorney Calonne worried unduly about the prospect of what he called “high-risk detentions.” In Monterey, the compliance officers simply walk away.
The pressure on the council not to enforce was intense. City Hall should not squander limited resources when the real fire was up in Santa Maria, where the problem is undoubtedly far more dire. All that, of course, is totally correct, but utterly beside the point. State Street is the main drag of the county seat. Sending the message that anything goes in Santa Barbara fatally undermines the unity of purpose absolutely required to get this monster under a modicum of control and does nothing to solve the problem in Santa Maria.
Back in June, I was urging City Hall to hire roller-skaters dressed in personal protective equipment to glide up and down the promenade, passing out free masks along the way to those who forgot to bring their own. In our grief over what appears to be an endless slog into oblivion, pointed reminders are necessary. For the beer pong bro brigade that colonized the Rose Garden this Sunday, maybe something more than pointed might be needed. As State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the legendary “Bullhorn from Boston,” has argued long and loud: Nothing says you mean business like a little enforcement.
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