Isla Vista Holds the Key to Santa Barbara’s Reopening Progress

College Town’s COVID Outbreaks, Potential Halloween Parties Threaten County’s Orange-Tier Aspirations

Isla Vista bikers | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Though just a small, single-square-mile community, Isla Vista holds the key to pushing the entire County of Santa Barbara forward or backward in terms of pandemic reopening progress. With Halloween coming up, the stakes get even higher with potential parties and gatherings.

Two new COVID-19 clusters, totaling 13 new cases, popped up in the tiny college town last week. This marks three total outbreaks in the community so far. Just last week, the Public Health Department reported that the single largest age group contracting the virus are those ages 20-29 — the main demographic of Isla Vistans. 

“It does seem likely that this outbreak is significant enough that it’s going to affect our numbers for a period of time, but if we are able to contain those and limit this to this event, we’re going to be able to get right back on track to the trend we have in the right direction,” 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart said about the outbreaks. 


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Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said that the outbreaks have been linked to houses in the Greek housing system as well as additional cases in the Isla Vista community. One major complaint from the public has been about parties and gatherings in Isla Vista and the lack of enforcement around social distancing and other pandemic protocols.

“UCSB needs to bring the hammer down on their student body,” said Andy Caldwell, who is currently running against incumbent Salud Carbajal for the 24th Congressional District seat. Caldwell is one of many who believe that enforcement is not strict enough and that the many college students residing in Isla Vista need consequences such as suspension for breaking COVID-19 protocols.

The university is working together with Public Health to keep a tighter control over Isla Vista cases. The two entities are working closely with collaborative messaging and outreach strategies with UCSB, SBCC, Goleta, the Isla Vista Community District, the Greek Community, and the Associated Students at UCSB. Public Health also expanded its testing hours in Isla Vista so more residents may be tested.

The county is helping to get messaging out on all fronts, including social media, collaborative letters from doctors to all students about gatherings, and door hangers in Isla Vista, as well as other PSAs. The general message is “Halloween at Home,” a much-needed message in the college town notorious for its massive Halloween parties. Thousands typically gather in house parties, many coming from out of town as well.

These efforts are all educational, however, and actual punishment for breaking protocols is still not in place for the community. Those who reside in Isla Vista have reported that when they call and report parties in their neighborhood to entities like the Sheriff’s Office or the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, it can be days before a response is given, if at all. To date, there have been no citations given for breaking protocol in Isla Vista.

The county is still in the state’s red tier, though the uptick in Isla Vista cases has put the county at risk of staying there longer. The adjusted case rate, while still in the red zone, went up from 4.2 per 100,000 last week to 4.3 per 100,000 this week. This comes after a multiple-week trend going downward. The county also has a testing positivity rate of 1.9 and a health equity metric of 3.2, both in the orange tier. 

As long as Isla Vista stays under control, the county can progress to the orange tier faster. Despite some of the partying complaints, Public Health believes the education approach will be successful.

“As soon as we knew of the cases and were able to identify the exposed, we were able to issue quarantine orders as well as sending staff out to make sure that the students were fully aware of what the health officer orders meant,” Do-Reynoso said. “And yes, the students took it seriously. They are abiding by what we asked them to do.”


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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