A sign in Santa Maria encourages residents to wear a mask.
A sign in Santa Maria encourages residents to wear a mask. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Maria city leaders will unite with Santa Barbara County public health representatives in battling the spread of COVID-19, but a recommendation to beef up enforcement efforts encountered heated questions Tuesday night.

County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso and other representatives provided a remote presentation to the Santa Maria City Council, spelling out data about local COVID-19 cases and recommending the two agencies unite for education and enforcement.

“It is really time for us to engage with City Council your code enforcement as well as your law enforcement to support us in that enforcement action,” Do-Reynoso said, noting some special funding related to the public health crisis could be at risk if compliance doesn’t improve.

“We definitely want to partner up with City Council to ensure that, hand in hand, we can do the education and enforcement,” she said, calling for city leaders’ support for ensuring public health orders are followed.

But City Attorney Tom Watson balked at beefing up enforcement, questioning the number of citations the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department issued or cases filed by the District Attorney’s Office, adding he was not aware of any.

The city code enforcement staff has investigated COVID-19 complaints referred from the county public health staff, Watson added.

“I just question the fact you that provided us a lot of statistics, but you provided us no actual response in your presentation this evening,” Watson said. “I guess I would ask what is the county’s response rather than asking what the city’s obligation is.”

Watson asked if public health officials expect city code enforcement officers to begin issuing violations of mask wearing rules and adding he may need more resources.

County Public Health Department map shows cumulative cases in Santa Maria.

County Public Health Department map shows cumulative cases in Santa Maria. (Santa Barbara County Health Department map)

“And specifically, the sheriff and the district attorney are not supporting your efforts,” he told Do-Reynoso.

Rising numbers of cases in Santa Maria mean officials need to look at what they can do better, Do-Reynoso said.

“We know, without a vaccine, what we can do in stemming the tide is for now adhering to social distancing, adhering to face covering and the diligent practice of hand washing,” Do-Reynoso said.

She noted the city’s involvement in an “amazing” mask-wearing campaign.

“We need more of that. We need more partnership  in terms of having respected leaders from the community to  join in that education effort. But education and enforcement goes hand in hand,” she said, adding enforcement may be needed in some restaurant situations where coaching has occurred and violations remain.

As of Tuesday, the county reported 3,742 COVID-19 cases with more than 1,500 occurring in the city of Santa Maria. Another 108 were in Orcutt and 139 were in the unincorporated areas of Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey, Cuyama Valley and the city of Guadalupe. 

The South Coast accounted for 651 cases, while the Lompoc Valley, including the federal prisons, has had 1,191 cases with 28 in Santa Ynez Valley.

Of the 30 deaths, 16 involved Santa Maria residents.

Approximately one-fourth of the cases involved those in the ag industry, leading public health leaders to call it “a worrisome sector” complicated by a number of factors.

While some efforts have focused on the ag workers, Do-Reynoso noted 80 percent of the cases affected other residents. 

She called for a city-county partnership to work together to spread the message about social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing and more while working to develop “innovative and doable solutions to address increasing cases.” 

City Manager Jason Stilwell said the city has struggled to get consistent information from public health staff about COVID-19 matters that would benefit from cooperation between both sides. 

“I think the challenge we see is they have a team up here doing their work, we have a team up here doing our work based on their health order and their health guidance, and it’s a challenge for us to both be running after the same issues when resources are tight, and the pandemic is real and the cases are growing,” Stilwell said. 

“If we can better coordinate that information sharing for us to be able to align resources that would be better,” he added.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.