This graph depicts the percentage of COVID-19 cases in Santa Barbara County by demographic. The black outlined bar represents the percentage of cases over the entire pandemic, while the red, overlapping bar represents the percentage of cases by occupation during the previous week — or the 45th week of the pandemic. | Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara County had the rug pulled out from under it this week when it joined 40 other California counties that were ordered by the state to move back to the most-restrictive purple tier.

“I’m tired of getting reprimanded to wear a mask,” said Terri Strickland, owner of the Hitching Post steakhouse in Casmalia. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I know wear a mask even when they don’t want to. Everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing…. Purple means total shutdown for businesses.” 

Strickland was joined by other public commenters who were equally upset at the state’s move and the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors’ decision to abide. Some commenters ― and even boardmembers ― called on the board to push back against Governor Newsom and not force Santa Barbara businesses back into the new restrictions.

“I think people are not just infuriated, but they are completely disheartened by the governor changing the rules once again,” said Andy Caldwell, who recently ran unsuccessfully against Salud Carbajal for Congress. “You were elected to represent the people who live here, not to be a representative of Governor Newsom.”

At stake is the ability for businesses to continue operations through the winter. Many restaurants have barely been making ends meet on the 25 percent capacity allowed inside in the red tier, but with the switch back to purple, dining establishments will only be allowed to serve guests outdoors. 

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“I very much understand and empathize with the frustration that’s been expressed, but I do think people are under a misimpression of what’s happening here,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said. “We are not sitting in a room formulating these laws. We and, in this case, the health officer are issuing health orders that are complying with state law. This is state law determining these.

“I would maintain that we still have some good weather. We can still try to maintain the best of these moments,” he said about outdoor dining.

Aside from dining, the purple tier also means that movie theaters, gyms, museums, and more are only open outdoors while bars, breweries, and brewpubs not offering outdoor sit-down dining are closed entirely, and all retail stores are allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity. 

And another major change — the two-week cushion counties had to keep cases down is gone. Now, a county may be pulled back a tier after just one week of increased cases. Tier assessments used to happen on Tuesdays; now, counties can move multiple tiers backward or forward at any time of the week, multiple times a week.

The supervisors ultimately decided to fight one of Newsom’s rules, though.

“Everybody is wondering what is the justification that allows you to go into a retail establishment at 25 percent capacity, but you can’t go into your place of worship,” 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. “You have to go outside. My response to them has been, ‘Well, you’re going to have to do what the nail salons, barber shops, and folks who do hair did. You’re going to have to pressure the governor into doing that.’”

And he motioned for just that. Lavagnino, along with Williams and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, successfully motioned for staff to write a letter to the governor asking him to give places of worship in Santa Barbara the same rules that retail shops like grocery stores get. 

 “I am identifying with one of the speakers. I’m getting really tired of the attempt to shame me for disagreeing with this strategy,” Adam said. “We’re acting like everybody on the planet has an equal chance of dying from this thing, which is absolutely not true…. Let’s tolerate people making their own choices and trust people a little bit instead of being big government and trying to be everybody’s mother.”

Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said she wanted it on the record that she would personally feel very uncomfortable drafting the letter and that she attends outdoor church service herself weekly. Both 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart also said they felt the idea was dangerous and voted against it.

“There are 247,000 COVID deaths in the United States today. It is projected to go higher than all of the American servicepeople who have lost their lives in wars in the 20th century over the next few months,” 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart said. “We are being asked to wear masks and avoid each other for a period of time to prevent those consequences happening to neighbors, friends, and family members. I don’t think this is extreme.”

At the end of the day, the numbers speak for themselves. Do-Reynoso presented new charts showing how fast the county’s cases began climbing in recent weeks and how much the data — particularly demographic data gleaned from contact tracing — has drastically changed.

For example, college and university students make up 6.1 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the county since the pandemic began. The same group makes up 16.5 percent of all cases in the past week. For agricultural workers, a reverse trend is showing up. Although they make up 18.7 percent of all county cases since the pandemic began, strong outreach has helped change their rising cases, and in the past week agricultural workers represented just 4.1 percent of all cases.

Besides businesses scrambling to meet the new restrictions, the reverse to purple has also left parents scratching their heads. But this regression does not necessarily mean that in-person schooling is out of the question for their children. The schools in the area that have already made the shift to some form of in-person education may continue despite the tier change because they switched to in-person learning in a red tier. 

For those in the Santa Barbara and Goleta Union school districts, it’s more dicey. As long as the county is currently in the red tier or better the week that school starts — January 19 and 11, respectively — then school may resume on campus as planned. Otherwise, they will have to remain in distance-learning models.

Hartmann, who used to run marathons, compared the frustration and pandemic fatigue experienced by many to her mindset while running. It’s around mile 17 you start to question why you’re doing it, she said, and the county and the rest of the state and country are at mile 17 now. “I would tell myself to get through it, and then I’m never doing it again.”

The next county update on the pandemic is Friday, November 20, at 4:30 p.m. The press conference can be streamed live from the county YouTube channel here.

This graph shows Santa Barbara County’s adjusted case rate over the entire pandemic period so far. The most recent, far-right side of the graph shows how the local case rate has increased and is spiking back into the purple tier. | Credit: Courtesy

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