At the beginning of the pandemic, a helicopter delivered COVID test kits to the 'Grand Princess' cruise ship. Santa Barbara has suspended cruise ship visits through March 1, 2022. | Credit: California National Guard

Though Waterfront Director Mike Wiltshire touted the low impact of cruise-ship visits — strategically set for mid-week and “shoulder” seasons — which bring millions to Santa Barbara’s economy, for the “health and safety of our community … we have decided to pause the program,” he said via a city press release on Monday. A local increase in COVID infection rates has led to the decision to wait to see what the impacts will be, he noted.

In recent days, Santa Barbara County’s hospitalization rate had passed into the red zone: above 35 percent of available hospital beds in use. According to County Public Health’s dashboard, 397 of the 603 available beds were in use as of August 30, which is 65.8 percent of hospital beds available with sufficient staff to care for patients. COVID patients occupied 72 of the beds. Among very serious cases, 22 of the 76 total ICU beds were taken up by COVID patients, 16 of whom were on ventilators.

The COVID case rate per 100,000 county residents peaked in early August at about 27 patients, which were identified as 41 unvaccinated and 13 vaccinated individuals. More recent figures indicate infection among vaccinated individuals is dropping, at 7.5 on August 20. The rate had been dropping among unvaccinated individuals, too, until it spiked again to 37.8 on August 20. The county-wide rate is 21.9.

Wiltshire said the city was “optimistic that once we’re back to pre-pandemic status, Santa Barbara will return as a premier destination for the cruise line industry.” The suspension is currently set to last through March 1, and the next cruise ship visit is scheduled for March 10, 2022.

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