Fireworks erupt over the harbor in Santa Barbara in 2019.
Fireworks erupt over the harbor in Santa Barbara in 2019. City Council canceled the 2020 celebration on Monday, since the event draws large crowds to local beaches and the waterfront.  (Mike Eliason photo)

Bye, bye, Fourth of July. 

Santa Barbara’s annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration fizzled out Monday, the latest casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It doesn’t seem like the threat of pandemic would be lifted by then, certainly we still have positive cases emerging and things like large crowds are the last thing the governor and the public health officials would approve,” Mayor Cathy Murillo said.

The issue came up during Monday’s Waterfront Budget discussion. Canceling the big show did not seem like much of a controversy until Councilman Oscar Gutierrez started to lean on city staff and City Administrator Paul Casey

“When you say canceling the fireworks, does that mean all of the activities on the beach, or can the fireworks still go on and we not allow people on the beach and they could see it from the sidewalks of the streets?” Gutierrez asked. 

Gutierrez’s question sparked a dialogue over whether to cancel the show amid the stay-at-home order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

“It could be pretty tough from an enforcement point of view to keep people away while the fireworks are going on,” Waterfront Director Mike Wiltshire said. 

Gutierrez responded: “Is there an increase in law enforcement and the amount of money that is allocated to enforce safety during that day?”

Casey responded: “Yeah, it’s an extensive law enforcement effort for Fourth of July and a couple of other large events, so there is a financial impact of trying to manage the crowds. Unfortunately we have such a tradition of getting hundreds of thousands of people down on the waterfront for the fireworks that to somehow message that the fireworks are happening, but practice social distancing, we just find that hard to believe how that would be successfully achieved.”

Gutierrez, however, wasn’t persuaded.

“Okay, I feel like I need to hear from my other council members to see how they feel about it,” Gutierrez responded. 

City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez batted the idea around a bit.

“Is there a way that we can televise the fireworks during this pandemic?” she said. “Having the fireworks would be a tradition that we continue and probably bring some into our homes, but not having people on the beach, but maybe televise it. But I do understand the crowd control component. It’s just an idea.”

Councilman Mike Jordan was more blunt. He said he was “flummoxed” that the city would even talk about having the waterfront celebration this close to the Fourth of July. 

“Even if you said we are going to have it, but nobody can go there, you are going to have to lock down and patrol all the West Beach and shorefront properties just to keep the outliers from going down there. I think it is just a fatality this year and we will all look to other ways to celebrate, just as we are doing with everything else in our daily life right now,” Jordan said. 

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon agreed with Jordan, while acknowledging the disappointment. 

“It is hard for me to imagine that we could safely host the fireworks, but it is such a symbol of freedom in our country that it would be nice to have maybe — maybe this isn’t in the waterfront budget — but some type of aerial celebration that could be visible from home. But I can’t see having a large-scale fireworks event,” Sneddon said. “Maybe we postpone it and have a celebration of re-opening of the state, or something like that.”

Councilman Eric Friedman agreed it’s no time for massive gatherings this summer. 

“It is a tradition, but we are being asked all kinds of ways to sacrifice this year. Solstice has changed as well as Fiesta, everything in the summer, so it would be very hard to enforce any measures down there,” Friedman said. “In addition, we have this huge deficit that we are trying to address and that $60,000 could be for our capital budget. We have to look at everything.”

A bit later, during a different conversation about the Waterfront Department’s capital budget, Gutierrez brought up the Fourth of July celebration again.

“Are we going to have enforcement out there, are we going to close down the beach, the pier, the harbor? What’s the plan?” Gutierrez asked.

Murillo responded, “We would do beach management, like we have been doing so far.”

Casey noted that July 4 this year is on a Saturday so he expects that beaches would be affected, whether there is a fireworks celebration or not. The city will need to wait to see what the guidance is from the Public Health Department, what other jurisdictions are doing with their beaches, and “manage that weekend as best we can,” he said.

“I just hope that the general public doesn’t take it as us not being patriotic,” Gutierrez said.

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