SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - As Santa Barbara County inches closer to a lower reopening tier and fewer restrictions, county supervisors voted Tuesday to allow stricter enforcement of COVID-19 health officer orders in unincorporated areas of the county.
The 3-2 vote passed with support from South County supervisors Gregg Hart, Das Williams and Joan Hartmann, with North County supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino voting "no."
The ordinance moves on to a meeting next month, when it is set to be formally adopted.
Under the ordinance, public officers would have the power to penalize those breaking health officer orders, with punishments up to a citation or $1,000 administrative fine. The goal is to keep that law enforcement out of that kind of enforcement.
County Office of Emergency Management Director Kelly Hubbard said Tuesday that those large penalties would apply to large parties, public gatherings or non-complying businesses that break the local health order and could lead to widespread virus transmission in the community.
The ongoing debate was amplified by a Santa Barbara County Public Health Department update on Tuesday that presented encouraging COVID-19 numbers, but also kept small Isla Vista student outbreaks in focus.
The county remains in the "red" or "substantial" tier, but is very close to meeting the qualifications needed to move into the less restrictive "orange" or "moderate" tier.
With increased testing taking the countywide total above the state median, the county's adjusted case rate is 4.3 new daily cases per 100,000 people, just shy of the 3.9 figure needed to move into the orange tier.
The county's test positivity rate fell to 1.9 percent, which is lower than the 2 percent threshold required to move into the orange tier.
"This really is good news," said Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van do-Reynoso.
That being said, Isla Vista remains a focus. After UC Santa Barbara reported two small outbreaks at Greek housing in Isla Vista last week, do-Reynoso said Tuesday that the Public Health Department is tracking at least three student outbreaks in houses.
In response, both UCSB and the Public Health Department have increased COVID-19 testing in the community.
Do-Reynoso says UCSB will cover testing of its students in the community, while the Public Health is covering all other students and community members. She also says that the students testing positive last week who were connected to the outbreaks are taking Public Health guidance seriously.
Several UCSB students and Isla Vista community members have been vocally supportive of extra health order enforcement from the county, saying it would deter student parties and gatherings that continue to violate health orders and present environments for the virus to spread.
Hartmann represents Isla Vista and the rest of the county's Third District. She says she supports allowing extra enforcement because she is listening to the concerns from her district.
“I’m listening to what 25 emails and eight [public] commenters said: we need this in our community to keep the county safe,” she said.
Supervisors voting for the extra enforcement stressed that education should remain the county's primary method of enforcement, with fines or citations serving mostly as deterrents.
“We’re gonna continue to do education,” Hart said. “We’re gonna continue to treat enforcement as the last tool, but it’s an important tool to have.”
Adam and Lavagnino believe the ordinance goes too far and infringes too much on the freedoms of county residents.
“We sought to educate, unite and incentivize, and now we decide our approach looks a lot more like ‘Intimidate and Coerce,’” Adam said.
“At some point, there’s going to be a problem,” Lavagnino said. “There’s some unintended consequences. Who knows what it’s gonna be?”
Several small business owners also oppose the idea, saying the added enforcement only gives them another challenge to worry about as they try to keep their businesses afloat amid ever-changing health guidelines.