Last May, as Santa Barbara County stared down the barrel of a summertime surge in COVID-19 cases, a local resident called officials to complain that a Montecito restaurant was not following the state’s most recent health orders.
“This restaurant reopened with no social distancing whatsoever,” the person said, according to a record of the conversation. “Managers are not observing posted guidelines. Employees feel they must risk their health in order to work.”
In the fall, another concerned citizen reported that a Lompoc church was holding regular services, with its leadership contending that “COVID-19 is a hoax and attendees are safe.”
More recently, right before the region experienced its third and worst COVID-19 wave, a resident asked authorities how a Goleta gym could continue operating despite a clear and long-standing directive to close. “Today,” they claimed, “I saw the manager brushing his teeth in the parking lot and spitting on the property of a retirement community next door.”
“How is that allowed?”
These are among nearly 2,000 public complaints filed with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department against businesses since the pandemic began. Others zeroed in on hotels, spas, hardware stores, and even doctor’s offices. One dental practice was the subject of nearly a dozen calls and emails after an office worker contracted COVID-19 and employees were allegedly directed by managers to “keep this quiet and not tell the patients.”
Despite this steady stream of concern voiced by residents ― which continues today, a full year into the health crisis, with the county still mired in the state’s most restrictive purple tier ― officials maintain that education and communication is the best way to cajole compliance from those who break the rules.
Other than a single preliminary injunction filed by the District Attorney’s Office against a Buellton gym very early in the pandemic, and minor charges against a few infected people who broke their mandatory quarantine, Santa Barbara authorities have not taken any punitive measures against either businesses or individuals. That means no criminal charges for violating the safety orders of the county’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, or administrative remedies, such as revoking a restaurant’s license for breaching guidelines set forth by the Environmental Health Services (EHS) department.
But that doesn’t mean meaningful action hasn’t been taken, explained Kelly Hubbard, director of the Santa Barbara’s Office of Emergency. Instead, she said, the county has been diligently working hand-in-hand with businesses who may, knowingly or unknowingly, run afoul of the ever-shifting landscape of COVID-19 regulations. “I think there’s a sense out there that nothing is being done,” Hubbard said. “But there is a huge task force of staff working on this every day, every week.”
Hubbard stressed that the task force ― composed of representatives from city governments, attorneys offices, law enforcement agencies, and other entities ― documents and follows up on every citizen complaint. Some, however, can be difficult to verify. Others may prove totally unfounded. “We can’t issue enforcement unless it’s substantiated by a government official,” she explained.
When there’s enough evidence that a violation did occur, Hubbard explained, the county’s standard response is to dispatch ambassadors of their RISE (Reopening in Safe Environment) program, who help operators understand where they slipped up and what corrections need to be made. Sometimes, a deputy will tag along. “The majority of people we talk to, we don’t see complaints there again,” Hubbard said.
Last month, the Independent filed a request for statistics related to these outreach efforts, including how many house calls have been made, to which businesses, and so on. The county has so far not given a full response, but Hubbard said she would be providing the information to the Board of Supervisors at their March 3 meeting.
Gyms remain an especially difficult business sector to manage, Hubbard went on. The task force discovered early on that, unlike restaurants, who answer to EHS, or salons and barbers, who are overseen by the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, gyms have no such regulatory body. Therefore, no clear administrative option exists. “This is a really weird one that’s taken a while to figure out,” said Hubbard. A large portion of the approximately 2,000 public complaints are related to gyms.
John Savrnoch, Santa Barbara’s chief deputy district attorney, said the county is keenly aware of the intense headwinds all business operators face and hesitates to do anything that would add to their problems. “We continue to be very sympathetic to the pressure that businesses are under,” he said. “Particularly small businesses. This is people’s lives, their life savings.” And it’s not just the county that is taking a light touch with enforcement, Savrnoch explained. Individual cities and their police departments haven’t shown an appetite to drop the hammer, either. “There is not one entity involved in this that is looking to pursue criminal or punitive penalties,” he said.
Savrnoch believes Santa Barbara County isn’t alone in this strategy, as jurisdictions up and down the state try to balance public health with their economic lifeblood while navigating the uncharted legal territory that has come with the pandemic. “There are still a number of cases working their way through the courts that will help define a legally correct response to an alleged violation,” he said.
In the meantime, Savrnoch said, he and his colleagues will continue working behind the scenes to bring businesses up to speed on the latest regulations. “People should know the rules, but the rules change,” he said. “We don’t want to punish anyone. We just want to keep them safe.”
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.