Due to new Covid restrictions Santa Barbara restaurants are forced to end outdoor seating, leaving State Street empty. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

A piercing alert from the State of California warning of the rapid spread of COVID-19 punctuated the Board of Supervisors meeting at noon on Tuesday, a redundant reminder in a hearing that included a good hour and a half of commentary about state overreach in imposing the shutdown order.

The chair of the hearing, Supervisor Gregg Hart, asked repeatedly for the 45 speakers signed up to air their views on the shutdown to recognize that the board was going to vote on a letter to Governor Newsom requesting the removal of Santa Barbara County from the Southern California Region and instead place it with Ventura and San Luis Obispo in a new Central Coast Region.

“The sooner we can send the letter to the governor, the better,” Hart said to them.

Supervisor Joan Hartmann jumped in, asking County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni what would happen if the county simply defied the order. “It’s a crime to violate a state health order,” Ghizzoni replied. Additionally, the state had already told fractious counties that their funding — including federal CARES Act money that was given only to states, not cities or counties — would face consequences. “The risks fall on the residents of the county,” Ghizzoni added, stating that competing health orders at the state and local levels would result in confusion.

Santa Barbara County entered the new shutdown on Sunday night, sending it back to the early days of the pandemic, with 20 percent occupancy of retail stores, the closure of indoor and outdoor dining, and complete cessation of personal services like haircuts. The shutdown is based on a less than 15 percent capacity in the intensive care units at hospitals in the Southern California Region.

Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso noted that of the 54 people in county hospitals that morning, 15 were in the ICU. That’s a 150 percent increase from the six people in an ICU on November 23, or two weeks ago. Santa Barbara County has a total of 99 ICU beds in its hospitals, holding both COVID and non-COVID patients, and the ICUs are at 49.5 percent capacity. Among the three counties, the letter to the governor states capacity is at 32 percent today.

Do-Reynoso thanked her team for their “Herculean” efforts in gathering data, all of which were showing more coronavirus in the county. In the past three weeks, the case rate was up by 97 percent — from 7.3 per 100,000 people in the county on November 18 to 14.4 today — and positive test results went up 44 percent.

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COVID was causing working-age adults to become sick, she said: 32 percent of cases were people 18-29 years old, and 24 percent were 30-49 years old. The Latinx population continued to be affected in numbers greater than their population in the county, representing 61 percent of cases, 71 percent of those in the hospital, and 56 percent of deaths — but being only 48 percent of the county’s population.

Of the 922 people hospitalized with COVID since the pandemic began, about a third had diabetes, as well, 17 percent were obese, and 14 percent had a serious heart condition, but 45 percent had no comorbidities. Hospital stays averaged up to five days for 58 percent of patients, and about 16 percent stayed longer than 16 days.

As public comment commenced, despite Hart’s plea, about 35 members of the public weighed in. Nearly all of them spoke doubtfully about the deadly qualities of coronavirus, comparing it to flu deaths, questioning COVID tests, claiming an unconstitutional attempt to abridge their rights, and in one instance arguing it was a planned pandemic to bioengineer bodies into robots and cyborgs. One woman asked the county to stand up to California’s “egomaniacal, self-absorbed, hypocritical” governor, while another pointed to Newsom’s now-infamous lunch at the French Laundry in Napa as proof that he didn’t believe in the COVID rules either.

The last came from Terri Strickland, owner of the Hitching Post, a restaurant made famous in the 2004 film Sideways. She agreed with bouchon’s Mitchell Sjerven that the proposed letter to the governor should be stronger. Sjerven had earlier stated the shutdown orders were wreaking an economic devastation on restaurants. “We’ve served over 15,000 diners since June,” he said of his outdoor dining parklet on Victoria Street in downtown Santa Barbara’s pedestrian promenade. “None of our staff have become ill,” he said, “and outdoor dining has caused no known outbreaks.” He told the supervisors not to request a waiver but to “tell the state we will decouple from the Southern California Region.”

Mark Huston of Jane restaurant cited the restaurant owners who had bought heaters and built parklets, “all to be thrown away when we go back indoors next year.” He told the supervisors he and his wife, Margaret Huston, couldn’t sustain the restaurant much longer. “We’ve had to lay off 80 percent of our staff, and we’re down to a dozen part-timers at two restaurants. Our to-go orders barely cover their wages,” he said, “and it doesn’t cover our overhead.”

Lammy Johnstone of Solvang noted that the Christmas season sustained many retail businesses through the entire year. “It’s horribly unfair to close down at this particular time,” she said. Jim Knell of SIMA Corporation said that among the 250 merchants in his rental properties, about 20 percent pay their full rent. Eighty percent are on some level of rent relief, he said. The timing of the governor’s order was punitive and would destroy the economy for those who rely on the holiday season: “They will fail to survive,” Knell predicted.

Supervisor Peter Adam gave a literally electrifying image for the shutdown order: Stanley Milgram’s 1963 shock experiment. Milgram found that 65 percent of his test subjects would shock another subject — played by an actor — nearly to death upon the insistence of a figure of authority. “It is engrained in us all to follow orders given by an authority figure,” summarized Adam. “At some point, someone has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ And that should be us now,” he told his colleagues. “Let the governor make an overt threat to us in writing,” Adam challenged. “Let the governor attempt to punish us.”

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino shook his head with distress, saying he recognized some of the names during public comment as pillars of the Santa Maria community for the past 20, 30, 40 years. “It’s heartbreaking to hear business owners and restaurateurs describe how changing the goalposts is hurting them,” he said. “It’s as if we’re being punished for behaving well,” said Supervisor Hartmann, finding that the public by and large had worn masks and kept a social distance.

Flipping Adam’s analogy on its head, Supervisor Das Williams observed that the pandemic had been stressful on everyone. Some undervalued the real health impacts of COVID in focusing “on the health effects of unemployment, closed schools, closed businesses.” The supervisors’ job was to “balance all these factors and maintain empathy toward all folks suffering through this — the lost loved one, the lost job, the kids who aren’t in school.”

Hart then briskly tried to get the meeting moving toward a motion, and Williams mentioned that Ventura County’s supervisors had just voted 5-0 to send the same letter to the governor. “If we wait three weeks, that does no good,” observed Adam, as the letter states the county will abide by the shutdown edict for the mandatory three weeks. “Can we put a deadline on this thing? Time is of the essence.”

The supervisors unanimously agreed to send the letter to the governor and return next Tuesday for an update on his answer. In the meantime, at Lavagnino’s suggestion, the CEO’s office will provide an email address for public persuasion to Newsom, “a little more diplomatic” than the day’s comments, Williams suggested. 

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated Santa Barbara County’s ICU bed availability is 85 percent; it is just less than 50 percent when including non-COVID patients. Mark and Margaret Huston’s last name has been corrected from “Houston,” and their restaurant is Jane, not the Montecito Inn. Also, bouchon has served  15,000 guests since reopening, not 1,500 as originally reported.

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