DAY-TRIPPING IN SANTA MARIA: A couple of weeks back, I was lucky enough to win the lottery. After having signed up with Cottage Health, Sansum Clinic, and California’s My Turn for the COVID vaccine, I logged into the portal for CVS — corporate mega-monster that it is — and quickly found myself ensconced in the promised land. Not only would I get on the waiting list reserved for those newly eligible for Social Security, but I managed to snag an actual appointment. Only hitch was the drive up to Santa Maria.
The stretch of freeway between here and there being about the most scenic on all Planet Earth, this was no hardship. Santa Maria, by the way, is promoting itself as a tourist destination in the time of COVID, and to that end its Chamber of Commerce is giving away $100 in cash dollars to people staying two nights. My wife and I figured we’d make a Sunday afternoon road trip out of it.
The people at the CVS on Broadway — one of about five in Santa Maria — could not have been nicer. There were no long lines to navigate, no clouds of exhaled vapors to avoid. In fact, there were just two of us waiting. A quick poke in the arm later, I was almost done. A woman wearing dark-blue hospital scrubs — who administers about 100 such pokes a day — had to watch me a few minutes for such rare symptoms as vomiting, diarrhea, hives, dizziness, slurred speech, and the sudden violent constriction of my breathing passages followed by an equally sudden and unseemly death. Managing to pass that test, I was sent on my way.
I left that CVS buoyed by an utterly exaggerated sense of well-being and invulnerability. I wanted to pick a fight with someone who could easily kick my ass. Anyone would do. Failing that, my wife and I went off in search of a steak house that came highly recommended. We found it just a few blocks away in an aggressively nondescript pill box of a building.
We arrived about 3:30 p.m. Shifts were changing. Spread out under an awning was a sea of white plastic folding tables occupied by just a couple of parties, who left shortly after we arrived. The real action, it turns, was happening inside. The place was hopping. Maybe not packed like sardines, but tight enough to be busy. Had Dr. Henning Ansorg — Santa Barbara’s public health czar — declared indoor dining now acceptable? Was I the only one to miss the memo?
Patrons streamed in the front door. All wore masks. A few wore face shields. One, I swear, looked like a welder. Inside, the dining area was dark and claustrophobic, the way steak houses are supposed to be.
Out back where we were, it was all bright and sunny. The sound system delivered a steady stream of country western, but the auto-tune variant. It turns out we occupied one of those interstitial zones that rendered us effectively off limits to all waiters, who busied themselves breaking down boxes, taking out the trash, and watering plants as our collective blood sugar levels quietly tanked.
Eventually we ordered drinks. Eventually, they arrived. My beer was cold to teeth-cracking perfection. My wife’s martini, however, came unadorned by the requisite decorative olive. When she inquired inside, she was informed the establishment had run out of olives. Later, when I ordered a prime rib sandwich, I would be told the same thing; the establishment had run out of prime rib.
I was beginning to take it personal.
I got a top sirloin sandwich instead. It was about the best I ever had, swimmingly suffused in an ocean of fatty lipids. This cow, clearly, had not done yoga. I would not do yoga. Nor would I get to enjoy the sandwich either. After the second bite, the waitstaff descended on the outdoor dining area and began breaking down the tables and folding them up. And not softly. We were the only ones left. Halfway through the sandwich, a waiter stopped by to give us a couple of Styrofoam containers. Just in case we wanted to take our food with us. But no hurry, we were assured. After that, they came for the potted plants.
I didn’t care. I’d gotten my shot. I was invincible. I was un-buggable.
But later when Independent reporter Tyler Hayden filed a public record request to get a clearer picture of the county’s COVID enforcement record when it came to repeat offender businesses, I asked him to keep an eye out for this steakhouse. It turns out they’d been notified no fewer than six times by county inspectors, responding to various complaints of unspecified unsafe practices. While hardly the most, six complaints suggests a pattern and practice consistent with the description “scofflaw.” No action was taken. No fines imposed.
The county firmly believes in education, not enforcement. I get it. Businesses are taking it on the chin; everybody’s hurting; people need to work. But for the carrot approach to work, you need a credible threat that a stick actually exists. Were there any outbreaks related to this establishment? Based on the paucity of county records, we don’t know. Did county inspectors track this place for possible outbreaks? We don’t know. More troubling, they might not either.
What we do know is that the education-only approach in this case seemed to have zero deterrent value.
Naturally, I could not help but wonder if this laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest dining approach somehow connected with Santa Maria’s off-the-chart scary numbers when it came to COVID-related infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Now that we are approaching the transition from purple to red, I understand only scaredy cats, sissies, and hypochondriacs care about such things anymore. But it’s worth noting that Santa Maria has reported roughly 11,000 COVID cases, more than Santa Barbara and the rest of the South Coast combined. More to the point, Santa Maria has reported 149 deaths, while the rest of the whole county, from Carpinteria to Orcutt, has reported 275.
You will notice I have not named the restaurant in question. I do this in accordance with my long established policy as a practicing lapsed Catholic of protecting the guilty at all times. Also, why am I going to give free advertising to a place that ran out of olives, that ran out of prime rib, and then tried to run us out, too? And then, of course, there are the public health ramifications.
But I have to admit, that sandwich was really, really good.