In the face of an intense lobbying blitz by Santa Barbara’s bar, lounge, and restaurant industry, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to significantly expand the hours allowed for nighttime operations throughout the central business district, along Coast Village Road, and in the Funk Zone. This expanded the curfew for Santa Barbara’s nightlife operations by two and one half hours, from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Although some councilmembers expressed concern about rising COVID numbers, a clear majority embraced the time change in order to help keep struggling businesses financially afloat.
Mayor Cathy Murillo led the charge, at first unsuccessfully pushing to lift the curfew citywide instead of restricted to these three specific major entertainment zones. She also alluded to vaguely described enforcement and outreach campaigns that presumably would accompany the expansion of allowable nighttime hours.
The 10 o’clock curfew had been imposed this May with the de facto creation of what’s become the State Street Promenade, in which many bar and restaurant operations were allowed — for the very first time — to expand their operations to the sidewalks, to the streets, and out into innovations known now as the “parklets.” Many of these businesses have licenses allowing them to operate to the early morning hours, but only indoors. And indoor service, in the time of COVID, has been all but totally eliminated for health considerations.
Also pushing hard for the change of hours was Robin Elander, head of Downtown Santa Barbara, which represents 1,200 downtown businesses, and the board chair of her organization, Bob Stout, owner of the Wildcat Lounge. Arguing that the extra hours were necessary for businesses to succeed, both explained that the make-or-break revenues for their businesses are generated after 10 p.m. “All the owners understand the need to control the virus,” said Stout, a major player with nearly 50 years of experience in Santa Barbara’s nightlife scene. “None of us wants to make a buck at the expense of getting anyone infected.”
Other speakers stressed the metamorphosis that has taken place along the 500 block of State Street especially, once the heart and soul of the city’s drunk-and-disorderly zone. For bars and lounges to qualify for outdoor seating, they had to prepare meals. “We’re not slamming shots anymore,” said one owner, who explained he has now become a restaurateur.
While all councilmembers were boundless in their enthusiasm for State Street’s new car-free promenade and voted unanimously to expand it until December 8, some expressed reservation about opening up so large a chunk of the city to expanded after-hour wining and dining. Councilmember Mike Jordan, who acknowledged he’d been downtown only a couple times in the past two months, was concerned that people tended to wear masks less and maintain social distancing less as the night wore.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon was more outspoken, stating: “Safety comes first, and our numbers are rising.” She took issue with the testimony of some owners that no infections had been linked yet by public health officials to a specific bar. “The thing about community spread, they can’t trace it,” she said. “To say the virus doesn’t spring from a bar is not accurate; it’s just that we can’t trace it back.”
Councilmember Meagan Harmon, whose district encompasses much of the Central Business District, spoke enthusiastically on behalf of the nightlife industry, dismissing the usefulness of a 10 o’clock curfew. “That seems quite arbitrary to me,” she stated. “You can drink from 8 to 10.” When it appeared that the council was inclined to extend the curfew to midnight, it was Harmon who argued that it should be extended to 12:30, noting that the extra half-hour was especially meaningful to the downtown businesses.
When Mayor Murillo’s proposal to expand the curfew city wide failed — mainly because many other restaurants and bars were located too close to nearby neighborhoods — she then argued successfully to include the Funk Zone.
How Murillo’s statement that that the ordinance language should mention increased enforcement and outreach with the businesses will be received by law enforcement remains to be seen. No representative from the police department was on hand to describe what impact this additional enforcement might have on existing assignments. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movement, many officers have been loath to take on new responsibilities that lie outside the purview of traditional bread-and-butter police work. It was not explained if any discussion about this ordinance with law enforcement had yet taken place. It was also not clear if County Public Health authorities, with whom city officials have been collaborating, were part of this decision-making process.
Councilmember Jordan said he sensed there was “a push and pull” within the police department when it came to COVID-related enforcement, and he expressed guarded skepticism that the resources for such enforcement were available. Even if they were, he was iffy about the wisdom of putting officers at risk of infection. Mayor Murillo explained the reason she became such a proponent of the expanded curfew: “To people who ask what are you doing, we’re adjusting as we go along.”
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