Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county’s public health director
Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county’s public health director, hold a news conference Thursday urging residents to take all possible precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the Fourth of July weekend. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Fourth of July weekend has arrived, and Santa Barbara County Public Health officials have taken action to help stem the tide of new COVID-19 infections.

In an 11th-hour move, officials on Thursday ordered all beaches closed, a day after the Public Health Department promoted on Instagram to “Hit the Beach Safely.”

Not only do county officials want people to avoid the beaches, they’re also urging people to stay home, cancel family gatherings and avoid spending time with anyone not in the same household.

“Many people may be planning backyard Fourth of July gatherings this weekend,” Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said. “To protect from unknowingly transmitting the virus, please cancel those plans or move them into an online format.”

Thursday’s press conference harkened back to the early days of the pandemic in late March, when COVID-19 cases were exploding and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order. After efforts to reopen over Memorial Day weekend, cases have steadily returned and are reaching new highs.

Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, was absent from Thursday’s press conference, but Hart and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the public health director, took the lead in outlining the lay of the land leading up to what is typically one of Santa Barbara’s iconic weekend celebrations.

Do-Reynoso reported 111 new cases in the county on Thursday, with 64 patients hospitalized, including 20 in intensive care units. She said 55 percent of the cases were from person-to-person spread, 44 percent were community acquired and 1 percent from travel out of the area. She also reported one COVID-19 death in the county on Thursday, but did not provide any details. 

Overall, there have been 3,261 COVID-19 cases in the county. Of those, 2,858 people have recovered.

The county’s decision to close local beaches came after intense public pressure, and after three members of the Santa Barbara City Council declined to do so on Tuesday.

In fact, Mayor Cathy Murillo on Tuesday said, “County Public Health has said transmission is happening in close quarters, in a household, a workplace, that’s the major source of transmission — that’s kind of where I’m coming from. They’ve articulated that it’s the duration and intensity of exposure to the virus, and that doesn’t happen in open spaces — and if you are not believing that, that’s your position.”

Do-Reynoso responded to questions Thursday about government officials’ inconsistent messaging. 

“Yesterday evening, we received our case count and it was 268,” Do-Reynoso said.

“The increase in cases, as well as the closure of beaches south of us, worried us,” she said. “The team quickly regrouped and said, ‘Given this changing landscape, do we stay with our original decision or do we take the information and pivot and make the best decision for our community?’”

She said they knew that Los Angeles and Ventura counties had closed their beaches, but when Orange County closed its beaches, it was time for Santa Barbara County to act, too.

The rise in cases comes as a combination of the reopenings, increased testing and an increased positivity rate — more people being tested are getting positive results than a few weeks ago.

Since Memorial Day weekend, the number of cases in Santa Barbara, which closed State Street to make a pedestrian and outdoor dining promenade, has jumped from 83 to 319. Most of the cases reported in the county have been in Santa Maria and the Lompoc federal correctional complex.

Santa Maria has had 1,213 cases so far, and the prison complex reports 994 positive tests. Latino residents have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus, Public Health officials have said. 

In the county, 44,164 people have been tested for the virus as of Thursday.

There are two-week-long wait times for a testing appointment at the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara community testing sites now, and a four-day wait in Buellton, Do-Reynoso said. The demand has increased as the county encouraged everyone to get tested, regardless of exposure or symptoms.

Now, the county asks people only to request a testing appointment at those facilities if they have symptoms, a known exposure, or have been asked to be tested by a health professional. People with symptoms can get tested faster at healthcare providers, including hospitals and county clinics, Do-Reynoso noted.

Lower wait times for testing appointments at the state-run sites are available in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, she added. 

The beach closures come the same week that bars and breweries were ordered to close, and restaurants no longer can serve customers inside. It’s the latest twist in direction from government officials looking to slow down the transmission of the virus.

People can swim, surf, paddle-board, kayak and boat in the ocean or engage in physical activity on the sand, like running or walking, but are not allowed to sunbathe, sit or picnic. Umbrellas, tents, shade structures, beach chairs, coolers and barbecues are prohibited.

“This has not been easy because the scientific understanding of COVID-19 has evolved over time, as new information has been discovered,” Hart said. “New circumstances and challenges are emerging every day. What may appear as shifting public messaging is simply a necessary adaptive response to the evolving health crisis.”

This weekend, Sheriff Bill Brown said “augmented patrols” will be out enforcing the beach closure at beach entrances. He said there will also be patrols looking for impaired drivers.  

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