Calling it the most devastating crisis to hit the city in a century, City Administrator Paul Casey said Santa Barbara cannot afford to wait in its efforts to re-open the city amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to caution us not to be too slow,” Casey said. “This is the worst disaster in 100 years to face the city and we have to be responsive with some quick intermittent measures.”
Santa Barbara wants to close State Street to traffic and open it for dining, along with sidewalks, parking lots and other areas downtown. Restaurants would be able to place tables in those areas under a plan under consideration by the city of Santa Barbara.
Casey laid it out in plain terms at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Closing State Street is controversial, he said, but it would be a temporary solution to a major problem.
“Quite honestly, downtown is a ghost town right now,” Casey said. “So let’s try it. It’s outdoor. That’s safer than indoors. If public health says it is okay to allow people to start eating outside, then let’s start pursuing that.”
Casey pushed back on the idea that Santa Barbara is moving too fast. He wants a plan in place by May 31, but acknowledged that it might take longer.
“Does there need to be a process, yes,” Casey said. “Can it be a two-year Santa Barbara process? No. We don’t have time.”
Casey, who is under significant pressure from the business community for what it perceives as his poor management of the city’s community development department, was assertive in Tuesday’s discussion.
Mayor Cathy Murillo formed a task force three weeks ago to come up with a re-opening plan. The group of 21 people last week sent a letter to Van Do-Reynoso, Santa Barbara County Public Health director, with a plan for restaurants, retail and lodging. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will review the re-eopening plan as part of a larger county package. The information will then be forwarded to Gov. Gavin Newsom for approval.
Councilman Eric Friedman supports the plan. He said suicide rates are going up, and opioid abuse was already a problem before the pandemic.
“There’s the public health issue of the virus, but there’s also a significant mental health component to this that is directly correlated to economics,” Friedman said.
In the letter to the county, the city states:
- Restaurants should not be grouped together with theaters, sporting venues or places of worship as they do not have the same congregate activity or seating arrangments
- Bars should be allowed to open in Phase 2 if they can meet the physical distancing protocols
- Restaurants and bards should be allowed to expand their operations inside of their premises into closed streets and/or parking areas to facilitate increased physical distancing protocols
- Operating protocols and guidelines must be clear, and should be based on the ability to meet social distancing requirements, not on occupancy percentage requirements.
For retail, the recommendations are:
- The number of re-opening stages must be reduced and/or all retail should be considered essential business to allow for greater business operations
- More service-based retailers need to be considered essential businesses with public safety protocols required
- Eliminate the requirement of businesses to check the temperature of customers before entering a store, as this increases direct contact and may result in confrontations