Picnic tables are cordoned off at Leadbetter Beach.
Picnic tables at Leadbetter Beach are cordoned off to keep people from congregating due to COVID-19. The city of Santa Barbara decided Tuesday that it will keep its beaches open for the July 4 weekend. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s beaches will remain open over the 4th of July holiday, despite the efforts of three City Council members. 

Alejandra Gutierrez, Kristen Sneddon and Oscar Gutierrez voted to close the beaches out of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in cases in Santa Barbara and throughout the state.

The two closest neighboring counties to the south, Los Angeles and Ventura, have voted to close their beaches, and the trio of council members worried that keeping Santa Barbara beaches open would attract throngs of people from out of the area. 

“I am really concerned,” Alejandra Gutierrez said. “Numbers don’t lie. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and there’s not a cure and people are dying.”

On Tuesday, Santa Barbara County was reporting 2,933 total COVID-19 cases, an increase of 37 from the previous day, according to the state Department of Public Health. On Monday, the county reported 97 new cases.

There were 62 COVID-19 patients in county hospitals, the state reported, with 19 of those in intensive care units.

Another eight suspected COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, with two in ICU.

Of the patients in the hospital, 46 were at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, 15 were at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and one was at Lompoc Valley Medical Center.

The county Public Health Department announced Tuesday that it was going through an update of its COVID-19 reporting system, and would not have the day’s numbers until Wednesday.

Thirty people have died from the virus in the county. 

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo led the charge to keep the city beaches open, focusing on her concerns about people who live in Montecito. 

“I believe in the expertise of our county public health officer,” Murillo said. “If the county beaches are open and ours are closed, that would drive people to the Miramar and Butterfly and Arroyo Burro Beach, and that would crowd the beaches.”

Murillo said the city would instead have people patrolling the beach to make sure that people are socially distancing.

Jackeline Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the county Public Health Department, said “nothing is planned at this time,” on whether to close the county’s beaches.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the county was advertising that the beaches were open on Instagram, with a slogan of “Hit The Beach Safely!”

The social media post urges people to remain six feet apart from others unless they are in your own household.

“Santa Barbara County has used heightened enforcement successfully during past holiday weekends and the same can be done in this instance,” Ruiz said. 

Alejandra Gutierrez said that the city should show some leadership on the issue. 

“I do respect the information we are getting from the experts, but this city has been known as a destination for the 4th of July,” Gutierrez said. “I think we are just being careful, and we are just asking for this weekend for the beaches to be closed. We’re not asking for the entire summer. I am really nervous.”

Sneddon noted that cases have been rising steadily since about two weeks after the Memorial Day weekend openings. At that time, Santa Barbara was a “magnet” for tourists. 

She said people from out of the county were selling bracelets and other items, and she expects this weekend to be similar. People who come to the beach also go to grocery stores and gas stations and other places where people congregate.

Parks and Recreation Director Jill Zachary said the city plans to beef up the presence of its park rangers and lifeguards. On State Street, the city plans to install a tent where people can pick up masks. The city also plans to cover all barbecues, picnic tables and post signs warning about social distancing.

It’s not enough, said Sneddon, a professor of geology at Santa Barbara City College. 

“I feel very strongly that we need to close the beaches for one weekend,” Sneddon said. “We know too much. We know what Memorial Day weekend was like. We know what will happen. We’ll have massive numbers of people coming to the beaches on a holiday weekend. With that knowledge we need to act proactively.”

Sneddon made the motion to close the beaches, explaining that “we need to send a strong message that Santa Barbara is not the only open beach in Southern California.”

The vote tied at 3-3, with Murillo and councilmen Mike Jordan and Eric Friedman voting to keep the beaches open.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon was absent because she is ill. 

Friedman asserted several times that if the city is going to close the beaches that it should also close the parks and trails because people will congregate at those places.

He described a scenario where tourists would find closed beaches and then race downtown to drink, which would lead to larger concentrations of people on State Street.

He also expressed concerns that if the city closed beaches, and the county’s remained open, that people would dash to Montecito, Goleta, Isla Vista and Arroyo Burro Beach, and park on Alan Road, which is in his district. 

“If we just close the beaches, we know what people will do,” Friedman said. “They will come to Santa Barbara and see the beaches are closed, and what are they going to do? They are not going to go home. They are going to go right down to State Street and we are going to have a mass of people on State Street close together, or in the Funk Zone drinking alcohol, who might otherwise be at the beaches.”

He added that if the city makes a motion to close the beaches that “we need to make a motion to close the trails and the parks.”

“If you send people to the trails, there’s no social distancing on the trails,” Friedman. 

He said the city should only close its beaches if the county closes its beaches. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.