Thank God for Zoom. Had I been covering the county supervisors in person this Tuesday, there would have been dents in the back wall of the chambers where I’d be banging my head. At issue was an exceedingly modest proposal that would have provided county health officials a modicum of much-needed enforcement muscle when dealing with repeat offenders on matters relating to COVID precautions and safety. The measure on the table was an “urgency ordinance” which would go into effect the second it’s passed. Passage for such exceptional measures requires at least a four-vote majority instead of just three. Had it been enacted, the ordinance would have opened the door for fines — from $100 to $500 — after all education and outreach efforts had failed.
It got just three votes. Close but no cigar.
It ain’t necessarily dead. But it’s definitely delayed. By at least six weeks.
That may be six more weeks we don’t have.
In case you didn’t realize it, UCSB is about to open for classes. And even though these classes will be taught remotely, the students have moved back to Isla Vista. No longer the sleepy, empty ghost town it was a few months ago, all the apartments out there are now occupied. It’s party time!
Invite the neighbors. The more the merrier. Drink. Dance. Get stupid. It’s what people do at that age. UCSB officials say they have plans to contain the spread of the virus, but County Health officials remain unconvinced. A more accurate word is “worried.”
Freaked out might be more like it. Their task is not as simple as herding cats. Try mosquitoes. Or harder yet, gnats.
College campuses throughout the country are exploding with COVID right now. It’s not exclusive to UCSB. Look at USC. Notre Dame. The University of Alabama reported an outbreak of 530 cases.
Last weekend, a popular UCSB sorority threw a major bash. Individually, no doubt, all the celebrants understood it was a dumb thing to do. After all, only the top tier of all high-school graduates qualify to attend a UC campus. And UCSB is one of the most challenging of the UC nuts to crack.
Of course, not every tenant in Isla Vista is attending UCSB. The university knows that. A few weeks ago, the UCSB housing office sent out a “please, baby, please” note to all the major Isla Vista property management companies begging them not to rent to students not from UCSB or City College. It turns out that, since most universities and colleges are now only offering virtual teaching, students can roost anywhere in the world. Why not Isla Vista, a well-known party spot, where they have fun while pursuing their studies. And not every tenant is even a student. Others have moved there, as County Health officers stated last week, so they can enjoy the collegiate lifestyle without the inconvenience of having to attend college.
Nobody out there is stupid. But at that age, it’s almost impossible not to act that way.
The county supervisors, however, don’t have that excuse.
At a time when the rate of new infections and hospitalizations has been dropping everywhere else throughout the county, Isla Vista just experienced a jump of 225 percent. And that’s before the start of classes. As County Health officials reported last week, fully 40 percent of all COVID patients that are now so sick they require hospitalization are between the ages of 18 and 50. COVID is no longer just an old-person problem.
Naturally, all the deep-state hysterics and those who lose sleep worrying about black helicopters showed up at the Supes Chambers — virtually — to decry the proposed intrusion of government authority as unwarranted and outrageous. One argued that the bloody Reign of Terror unleashed after the French Revolution was sparked by concern over public health and safety. Words like “Orwellian” were used a lot.
They were almost incensed at the prospect that the new enforcement tool would be deployed against individuals not wearing masks, more properly known as face coverings. Many insisted there’s no scientific basis to think masks do any good. One even argued that people wearing masks run the risk of inhaling their own carbon dioxide.
Here’s the deal. The ordinance was not about masks. It never was. Yet not one of the supervisors made this point. Neither did Barney Melekian, the assistant county executive who midwifed this proposal. The real target was businesses — like a gym in Buellton — that openly and repeatedly defy public health orders regarding social distancing. It would also allow public health officials to better prohibit large social gatherings. In an interview last Friday, county supervisor Gregg Hart told me quite explicitly that new ordinance was not — not — designed to target individuals walking down the street without a face covering. He couldn’t have been more plain.
Yet, strangely, perversely, and uncharacteristically, Hart — the board chair and one of the most persuasive political operators on the scene today — sat silent. Never once did he seek to clarify the proposed ordinance’s intent to enrage anti-maskers as they whipped themselves first into a lather and then into a meringue. As board chair, Hart has never been shy or reluctant about interjecting during public comment to set the record straight.
I’m sure there’s a good reason.
The fact is, Hart has been consistently steadfast in his resistance to greater enforcement. He’s gotten blue in the face arguing that education and outreach are the best path to greater compliance and cooperation. In this case, Hart agreed — I’m guessing reluctantly — to vote for the urgency ordinance but otherwise did not engage. He said nothing. If he didn’t take an outright dive, it was the next best thing.
To be clear, the other side raised valid questions. Like why now, when our rates of infection and hospitalization are on the wane, would we adopt an ordinance allowing fines?
Here’s the answer: UCSB. Isla Vista.
Weirdly, nobody said as much. At times, Supervisor Joan Hartmann — whose Third Supervisorial District includes Isla Vista — alluded to the 9,000-pound elephant under the rug, but no one came out and said we need a fire hose on hand just in case the public health equivalent of a backyard barbecue got out of control and morphed into a wildfire.
Hartmann made some other points. Everyone, she noted, has fallen prey to COVID fatigue. We’re all getting high-grade cabin fever trapped in our COVID bunkers. Psychologically, it’s hard on the soul. Even the most careful among us are going to say “WTF” and slip. We all need reminders.
A key point of the ordinance was to give County Public Health an enforcement tool other than one now wielded by a uniformed law enforcement officer wearing a gun. Under the ordinance, it could fall to county environmental health inspectors, park rangers, and animal control officers to actually issue the citations. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — who said he initially supported the ordinance — wound up voting against it. He didn’t like the uncertainty about who in “the county family” would actually do the enforcing. And he suggested that sheriff’s deputies were already on it, citing the handful of large parties they’d already reported breaking up.
Supervisor Hartmann, in her diplomatic way, countered that sending uniformed law enforcement officers into the wild and woolly streets of Isla Vista is exactly the wrong approach in exactly the wrong place. It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition.
As usual Andy Caldwell, right-wing agitator-in-chief for the Coalition of Labor Agriculture and Business, questioned why the supervisors wanted to enforce now — as opposed to three months ago — and argued they needed to help businesses struggling to stay afloat, not to crack down. But at another time, he demanded to know what the hell the supervisors planned to do to contain Isla Vista.
In a way, Caldwell — who also happens to be the Republican candidate running for Congress against Democratic incumbent Salud Carbajal — answered his own question. If Isla Vista springs a leak, the whole county gets wet. If the state is ever to allow businesses in Santa Barbara County to reopen, we have to meet certain public safety benchmarks. If Isla Vista explodes, that will screw it for everyone in the county. We have all worked way too hard, suffered too much, and made too much progress to blow it now.
The ordinance, for the record, is not dead. It’s just delayed. The supervisors can bring it back for a vote — as a non-urgent ordinance — next week. Then, the week after that, it will become official. And then four weeks after that, it will take effect.
Six weeks. That’s quite a head start when you’re thinking about Isla Vista and COVID.
Maybe I’m worrying too much. I sure hope so.
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