Local officials from UC Santa Barbara, the Isla Vista Community Services District and Santa Barbara County have developed outreach and public education efforts to prevent another spike in COVID-19 cases as college students return to the area.
Even though Santa Barbara City College and UCSB are holding remote-only classes for the fall, leasing companies reported steady demand for student housing in Isla Vista over the summer.
SBCC has already started classes, and UCSB starts this week.
Isla Vista Community Services District President Spencer Brandt said the organization is “very concerned” about the August spike in COVID-19 cases, which was largely attributed to UCSB students.
“This is coinciding with more people coming back into the community as the fall semester (of SBCC) and quarter (at UCSB) are about to begin,” Brandt said. “We know that in Isla Vista, like other parts of our county where we’ve seen COVID spikes, people are living in really overcrowded housing situations, and that’s a fertile ground for the virus to spread.”
The community services district launched a publicity campaign to educate residents about local public health orders, including social distancing and face covering guidelines.
Brandt said the latest piece of the campaign informs residents how to report violations of the health order, and reminds them that “it’s not appropriate to gather in any group setting of people who are outside of your household right now.”
The district has been coordinating similar efforts with the county and college groups including UCSB’s Associated Students and GauchosForTransparency.
The district is also working with the county’s Reopening In a Safe Environment (RISE) Ambassador program, which helps food and retail services reopen during the pandemic, he added.
“Our businesses in Isla Vista are doing an excellent job at adhering to the health officer order, making sure that people are wearing masks, making sure that they’re staying six feet apart, at 25% capacity, when necessary only doing outdoor seating,” he said.
“The problem exists in private residences,” Brandt said, adding that the county’s RISE Ambassadors have been speaking with a few of the larger property managers in Isla Vista about how to educate their residents on social distancing protocols.
Isla Vista reported 229 total positive cases as of Sunday.
Gatherings and Parties in Isla Vista
Landlords have sent warnings and, in at least one case, eviction notices, to college student tenants accused of hosting large parties in violation of public health orders and their leases.
Similarly, UCSB has been warning its students who live in Isla Vista that failing to comply with public health orders is a violation of the university’s student conduct codes, university spokesperson Andrea Estrada said.
“That point was stressed most recently in letters we delivered jointly with SBCC to the residents of houses that have been referenced in reports of large gatherings that violate orders from the Santa Barbara Department of Public Health,” Estrada said.
After a residence is reported for the first time, the residents will receive a “joint letter of concern” from UCSB’s and SBCC’s respective deans of students, detailing the health orders and COVID-19 prevention strategies, according to an email from the university.
If a large gathering is reported, the university and county will reach out to the property owners, Estrada said.
Property owners can terminate leases if residents violate public health orders, and some “Isla Vista residents who have hosted large gatherings have had their leases terminated and have been evicted,” according to UCSB.
“Students who are reported to have violated public health orders may either be referred to the Office of Student Conduct or receive an educational warning, depending on the nature of the report. It is always our goal as an educational institution to work with students to address their behavior without disrupting their academic progress,” Estrada said.
“Students who are referred to the Office of Student Conduct, however, can face a range of sanctions, up to and including suspension or dismissal, depending on the report.”
UCSB originally planned to host remote and in-person classes for the fall, but decided in late August to go online-only because of the increasing COVID-19 cases in Isla Vista.
At that point, UCSB students represented more than 60 percent of the Isla Vista area’s cases.
UCSB will not be providing on-campus undergraduate housing for fall, except to those with special circumstances, and is encouraging students to stay in their hometowns or find housing away from Isla Vista.
Nearly 9,000 UCSB students lived in Isla Vista last year, according to the university’s 2019-20 campus profile. The university’s first day of classes for Fall Quarter 2020 is Thursday.
It isn’t known how many UCSB students will be living in Isla Vista in fall, but Estrada noted that the “fact that some landlords have been advertising to students from other colleges and universities also indicates that many of our students may be avoiding IV this quarter.”
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose district includes Isla Vista, has been heavily involved with COVID-19 public information efforts in the area.
“The rise (in COVID-19 cases) is not unexpected. We’ve seen that throughout the country that university towns see a rise in cases. We’ve been meeting with the university, meeting with various organizations to talk about this,” Hartmann said.
Her office has been working with the Isla Vista Community Network, a group that has recently been meeting every week to discuss issues relating to Isla Vista.
UCSB’s student government, Associated Students, is involved in the public education efforts, and is working on alternative Halloween programming, she said.
“I think students today really want to make a difference,” she said. “And I think that we’re seeing that happen right now in Isla Vista. It’s hard because young people, part of their job is to socialize, and to learn who they are in relation to other people. So just coming and being isolated, that is really hard.
“We’re trying to find creative ways to be together… (and) respond to the social need that we all have.”
Hartmann said her office was notified when a Del Playa Drive residence posted flyers advertising for a party. The property management company sent a cease-and-desist letter to the residents, she said.
“I know of at least a handful (of landlords) who are moving forward with eviction notices,” said Gina Fisher, a district representative in Hartmann’s office.
“You can’t evict (right now) for COVID-related reasons, but for health and safety reasons, you can,” Fisher explained.
The Board of Supervisors rejected an emergency ordinance establishing administrative fines for public health order violations, but the issue might come back in the future.
Hartmann was one of the three supervisors who supported the fines.
“It’s more like a traffic ticket,” Hartmann said, adding that she’s looking into possibly linking these fines to the restorative justice program, which allows residents to attend the equivalent of traffic school rather than pay the fines.
“Isla Vista is a very diverse, rich, creative, energetic community. And I think the more we can channel that energy in a consistent message and get coordinated so that can happen, the greater the impact, the greater we can amplify, the greater we can encourage the sense of responsibility among everybody in the community.”
Santa Barbara County, California and the rest of the country are seeing a trend of COVID-19 cases growing among younger people, for a variety of reasons.
A Noozhawk analysis of local cases in August showed cases growing among younger residents, but older residents are the ones dying of the disease.
Recent data shows that the state-run community testing locations are being heavily used by younger and mostly asymptomatic people.
About 45 percent of people tested at those locations in early September were under the age of 25, and about 75 percent of people tested reported no symptoms.
One of the state-run community COVID-19 testing locations recently moved from Santa Barbara to Goleta, which is closer to Isla Vista residents and is more accessible by public transit.
The three locations offer free testing by appointment, for people with or without insurance, and for people with or without symptoms.
Testing sites are in Santa Maria at the Santa Maria Fairpark at 937 Thornburg St.; in Buellton at the American Medical Response Central Training Center at 240 E. Highway 246, Suite 110; and in Goleta at the Goleta Valley Community Center, at 5679 Hollister Ave.
Testing appointments can be made online at https://lhi.care/covidtesting, or by phone at 888.634.1123. Residents can also call 2-1-1 for help scheduling a testing appointment at these sites or community clinics.
UCSB recently announced that all students and faculty accessing the campus need to receive flu vaccinations this year. There is a free vaccination clinic on campus, near the Recreation Center, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday this week, and again Oct. 5-Oct. 7, according to the university.
Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli contributed reporting to this story.