Businesses that flout the county’s public health decrees regarding COVID could soon face fines as high as $500 if the county supervisors vote this Tuesday to enact “an urgency ordinance” to deal with noncompliance, as Kelly Hubbard, director of the Office of Emergency Management, is asking them to do.
While many other jurisdictions already enforce such health orders, Santa Barbara County has been loath to go that route, insisting instead that education, outreach, and persuasion are more effective. Board chair Gregg Hart stated these will remain the preferred methods to achieve compliance but said the new ordinance would give county law enforcement and health agencies a new, more agile tool for dealing with those who refuse to comply. He stressed that the new ordinance will not be used to target individuals who are not wearing masks in public but would be reserved for businesses that have repeatedly refused to comply with public health orders even after being put on notice.
“What we’re hearing is there are instances where business owners have been egregious in failing to comply,” Hart said. He cited the case of a gym in Buellton whose owners, citing ideological reasons, have continued to conduct workout and training sessions indoors. Current health orders allow gyms to operate, but only outdoors. Hart said he has been told that the District Attorney intends to file unfair business practice charges against the gym owners.
The new ordinance would enable a wide range of county personnel to now issue administrative citations with civil penalties against businesses that refuse to observe mandated safety protocols, not just law enforcement officers, who typically issue criminal citations.
“We’re looking for a tool that allows us to send someone not wearing a law enforcement uniform and someone who is not an Ambassador,” explained assistant county executive officer Barney Melekian. Ambassadors, who currently are assigned to do outreach and education with businesses, are not authorized to issue citations of any kind. Law enforcement agencies have expressed a definite disinclination to take on such enforcement duties.
Under the new regime, it’s not entirely clear which county personnel would be charged with such enforcement duties, but Melekian said Park Rangers and Animal Control officers are currently authorized to do so. So too are restaurant and pool inspectors with Environmental Health Services.
Both Hart and Melekian stressed that the supervisors are being asked only to authorize the creation of a new enforcement tool, not a new enforcement strategy. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox, if we find we need it,” Hart said. “It’s a belts and suspenders thing. But let me be very specific and clear: This is not — not — a new enforcement strategy.”
Hart has been emphatic in the past in his support of education and outreach. Enforcement, he’s worried, will spark confrontation and generate possible public backlash. The ill will generated, he has warned, would exceed any public health benefit derived.
Currently, the county’s COVID metrics seem headed in the right direction. Santa Maria — long the hotspot for the pandemic — has seen a 39 percent reduction in new cases over the past two weeks. Santa Barbara and Lompoc have seen a 35 percent drop. The number of hospitalizations has likewise dropped. But the number of deaths has jumped to 87. Two weeks ago, that number was 64. Death spikes typically lag a few weeks behind increases in hospitalizations. Also, 40 percent of those hospitalized in Santa Barbara County for COVID are in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Younger people are no longer as immune as they seemed to be.
Isla Vista, in contrast to other areas, has a 225 percent increase in new cases, and one death. In response to the rising rates of infection in Isla Vista, county health officials are teaming up with UCSB to conduct aggressive social-media outreach efforts to promote social distancing, the wearing of face coverings, and, most critically, to avoid large social gatherings. The plan is to work with community organizations in Isla Vista to get this message out. The party-hearty culture of Isla Vista, however, could prove challenging. County health officials report that many people are moving to Isla Vista to enjoy the college atmosphere without having to go to college. They cited one ad for housing that proclaimed COVID-19 was not real, adding, “Come, Be Free.” County health officials say they’re hoping to use the same techniques and approaches in Isla Vista that proved so successful in reducing the rate of infection in Santa Maria. That entailed working in conjunction with groups and individuals who enjoyed trust with the community itself.
Hart said county staff have been pushing for the enforcement option based in part on the growing uncertainty as to how long the pandemic may last. The rate of new cases has fluctuated dramatically already in Santa Barbara’s response to COVID, and the possibility of yet another surge remains a very real threat.
Fines for the first offense is proposed to start at $100. For the second offense — within a 12-month period — it’s $200. For the third, it’s $500.
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