Can Santa Barbara County Escape the Governor’s COVID Purple Tier?

Businesses Worry They Can’t Survive Current Restrictions, and Officials Worry Isla Vista Will Spread the Virus

Maskless cyclists ride down Isla Vista's Del Playa Monday afternoon. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The county supervisors found themselves still struggling this Tuesday to digest California’s new, four-tiered, color-coded COVID-19 scheme to determine which areas have high-level transmission rates. Based on the heated words exchanged among the supes, the new system — simpler, clearer, but significantly slower to allow economic expansion — the new scheme, announced only late last Friday, is inducing no shortage of heartburn. 

The split followed the traditional fault lines of the county’s north-south divide, with the two North County supervisors — Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino — expressing profound concern that the state’s new system will straitjacket existing business activity, giving little chance of ever passing muster with state authorities. Conversely, the three South Coast supervisors — Gregg Hart, Das Williams, and Joan Hartmann — expressed guarded optimism that the new metrics offer a clearer and safer way forward, however slow, for businesses struggling to stay afloat and provide stronger motivation to members of the community to wear masks, socially distance, and wash their hands. 

When Terri Strickland, owner of iconic North County steakhouse and watering hole the Hitching Post, angrily demanded to know why the supervisors weren’t leading a revolt against the new state metrics — which she insisted would kill the economy and hurt schoolchildren — Supervisor Williams responded, “I don’t know having a temper tantrum helps our kids.” 

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This response, in turn, set off Santa Maria supervisor Lavagnino, a moderate Republican who renounced his party affiliation in response to the presidency of Donald Trump. “Maybe there’s a disconnect between what we’re hearing and what you’re hearing,” Lavagnino commented to his South Coast colleagues. Established businesses, some 60 years old, found themselves having to make tough life-or-death business decisions without “feeling their voices were heard,” he said, and a little empathy and sympathy was in order. “To classify it as a temper tantrum — that doesn’t sit very well up here.” Williams clarified he didn’t mean that Strickland was having a temper tantrum but that he thought she wanted the supervisors to engage in one. 

Alluded to during Tuesday’s discussion — though only glancingly — was the latest 8,000-pound pachyderm under the county’s COVID rug: Isla Vista. With fall classes about to begin at UCSB, campus and county officials are quietly alarmed. Across the country, colleges and universities that have opened earlier than UCSB are now reporting high infection outbreaks. Just last Friday, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang announced the university would be cancelling its dorm housing contracts with incoming freshman for the fall quarter. UCSB officials have declined to specify how many students might be affected, but informed sources indicate the number ranges between 3,000 and 5,000. 

Yang cited the sharp increase in numbers of COVID cases in August — 225 percent according to county health officials — reported in Isla Vista as one of his main reasons. Since then, those numbers have dropped back down again, but classes don’t start for another couple of weeks. In the meantime, the Daily Nexus reports that I.V. Foot Patrol officers broke up three large parties on Del Playa this past weekend, thus scattering hundreds of mask-free youth into the late-night streets. 

In recent weeks, county health officials have expressed alarm at anecdotal reports of housing ads extolling Isla Vista’s virtues as a party haven where young people can enjoy the benefits of the collegiate lifestyle without having to attend college. It was serious enough that county housing officers sent mailers to major property management companies beseeching them not to rent to non-UCSB and Santa Barbara Community College students. 

More recently, reliable reports have surfaced that some Isla Vista residents are traveling to Ventura County to get tested for COVID to avoid the nosy questions that come with “track and tracing” from Santa Barbara County health officials. Animated by a quiet but desperate sense of urgency, county and university officials have been meeting in recent weeks, trying to cobble together a plan to contain any outbreak in Isla Vista, popularly believed to be one of the densest packed masses of humanity west of the Mississippi River. There’s talk of a new, experimental mass-testing protocol, but to date, there’s been no FDA approval. The state testing center — which just relocated to the Goleta Valley Community Center — has a maximum capacity of 140 tests a day. 

As for Isla Vista’s propensity to party, the options are few and none good. Given the acute political sensitivities of the moment — Black Lives Matter and the “defund the police” movement — now would be an especially dicey time to deploy the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, the UCSB police, or Sheriff’s Office deputies to quell outbreaks of too much fun. Theoretically, the university could impose disciplinary sanctions — such as suspensions or expulsions — but it has been loath to do so in all but the most exceptional circumstances. The same reluctance to enforce public health orders has occurred with some of the larger landlords who have allowed large gatherings to take place on their properties. 

In the meantime, Supervisor Hartmann, whose district includes UCSB and Isla Vista, expressed determined optimism that the social media messaging campaigns now being launched by student leaders and other door-to-door grassroots efforts will bear fruit. “We can be the model for the rest of the country,” she stated, alluding to the collaboration between student leaders, the community, and the university to keep COVID under control. Supervisor Williams, who grew up in Isla Vista, chimed in that Isla Vista was “not the source of all bad things in the universe,” adding, “People there can be rational human beings.”

The rest of the county — the north especially — certainly hopes so. That’s because the governor’s new color-coded scheme tracks the rate of new transmissions instead of the rate of hospitalizations. As a result, if Isla Vista reports an outbreak of new infections — and really not all that many would be required — it would keep all Santa Barbara County businesses stuck where it is now: in the purple tier, the most restrictive one. 

For the county to be permitted to expand into the less-restrictive red tier, it needs to meet two performance thresholds — no more than 32 new cases a day and a positivity rate not to exceed 8 percent — for two consecutive weeks. (Under “purple rules,” restaurants can only serve outside; under “red” rules, restaurants will be allowed to open indoors as well, but at 25 percent capacity.) This Tuesday, the county managed to satisfy both those benchmarks. The last time that happened was June 3. Until early May, the county had been solidly in the red zone, but after the Memorial Day holiday — around which time Governor Gavin Newsom decided to open up the economy — Santa Barbara and the rest of California experienced a significant rise in new cases, new hospitalizations, and new deaths.

The bitter irony here is that in the past two weeks, Santa Barbara County’s key COVID-19 benchmarks have been trending consistently downward. The number of COVID-related hospitalizations dropped 31 percent in the past two weeks, and the number of patients admitted to intensive care units dropped by 18 percent. Although the total number of reported infections continues to rise, the number of active cases — which tends to fluctuate — also dropped by 18 percent in the past two weeks. 

To listen to Supervisors Lavagnino, the curve has been flattened. Supervisor Adam insisted it was time for the county to declare, Mission Accomplished. Even if the county succeeds in making the daunting transition from purple to red, they insisted, that’s still not enough to allow most businesses to survive. But Supervisor Hart, the board chair and the supervisors’ most public face on matters COVID, insisted the new regime offers a pathway out. The new metrics, he insisted, are an improvement over the past. If San Diego County can make the transition from purple to red, he stressed, then certainly Santa Barbara can, too. But only if everyone wears masks, socially distances, and washes their hands.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story’s photo caption referred to the cyclists as UCSB students, which has not been verified.

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+.


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