With an ever-changing business climate and ongoing public health concerns, Santa Barbara County leaders gathered Friday for a State of the County address focused on the far-reaching economic impacts that COVID-19 has had on the community.
“Ten months into the pandemic, we’re riding another wave of uncertainty as everyone is concerned about the rise in COVID cases throughout our county,” Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce, said in introducing the Zoom webcast. “We’re facing yet another downturn, but this time the chamber is more than ready to advocate and support procedures that protect our community’s health.”
Gregg Hart, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, spoke about how the county will recover, thrive and prosper as it has before in times of chaos.
“Collectively, our spines have already been stiffened by the too-many-to-count local natural disasters and unfortunate tragedies we have experienced in the last couple of years,” Hart said. “If anyone or any agency can be prepared to deal with a global pandemic, comparatively our county has done very well responding to this crisis.”
Hart, along with his board, passed an urgency ordinance that temporarily prohibits and suspends commercial evictions because of COVID-19-related medical expenses or loss of income in hopes to bring some “much-needed relief” to businesses.
In April, the county also introduced the Reopening in a Safe Environment guide, or RISE guide, as an attempt to present local guidance on reopening. After the state issued its own resilience roadmap, the county modified its reopening guide to supplement the state’s, according to Nancy Anderson, assistant county executive officer.
“This is a living document that has changed over time with additional input, changing conditions and new information,” Anderson said. “The guide was developed by medical experts and supported by feedback from many sectors in the community.”
As part of RISE , the county developed an online self-certification process for businesses to get approved to reopen. After reviewing state and local guidance and completing a COVID-19 prevention plan, businesses can self-certify that they can open safely. So far, 4,300 businesses have participated in the process, Anderson said.
Despite the county’s additional aid and efforts to keep businesses afloat, the number of unemployed people in Santa Barbara currently stands at about 15,000, according to Peter Rupert, executive director of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project. Unemployment numbers in the county hit 30,000 in April and May, he said, which is substantial comparatively because the peak of unemployment during the Great Recession was only 20,000.
“The pandemic hit things differently,” Rupert said. “The people who were hurt were the people who could least afford it.”
Additionally, the state is facing a deficit, which means the county should be prepared for possible reductions in some of its local programs, according to County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato.
Santa Barbara County is a $1.19 billion enterprise with 21 departments, according to Miyasato. With county government being the second-largest employer in the county, the executive office has made a conscious effort to maintain services as much as it can, Miyasato said.
The county also offered liaisons to work directly with local school districts to help them make decisions with the best-available information from the Department of Public Health.
“No issues have been more vexing to parents and school officials than the critical decisions about distance learning and reopening campuses for in-person instruction,” Hart said.
The county also faces a homelessness issue that has been heightened since the sudden eruption of the pandemic. Many existing support services have been interrupted or altered out of necessity because of physical distancing requirements, Hart said.
“Despite these challenges, the county remains determined to work to provide housing opportunities and support for community members experiencing homelessness,” he said.
During the course of the pandemic, the county Department of Community Services led the local effort to join the state’s Project Roomkey program, designed to provide safe and temporary housing to more than 100 medically-vulnerable seniors experiencing homelessness.
Since the start of the program, more than 40 people in the county have transitioned into permanent housing, according to Hart.
The county also secured state funding to convert a county office building into long-term supportive housing, he added.
Miyasato has been serving as the county executive officer for seven years, and in that time has had to proclaim 17 disasters and emergencies and open up the Emergency Operation Center more than 40 times, she said.
“But this pandemic, as we know, is unprecedented and has affected our lives in many different ways,” Miyasato said. “I understand it hasn’t been easy; it’s been erratic, it’s been unpredictable and devastating to many.”
To bounce back from the upheaval the pandemic has caused, the county will continue to focus on the health and safety actions related to the pandemic, vaccine distribution as well as the high-priority projects that started before COVID-19.
Some of those projects include the future opening of a northern branch of the county jail in Santa Maria, the 2021 opening of the Resource Center at the Tajiguas landfill, an improved first responder communications network, and developing 125 new mental health beds throughout the county, Miyasato said.
Additionally, the county in the near future has to be prepared for health risks, the ending of many programs and long-term unemployment, Rupert said.
“By the way, we’re in a war,” he said. “We’re fighting against something that’s hard to defeat. There’s going to be collateral damage.”