The Santa Barbara City Council voted Tuesday night to educate people about the importance of wearing masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue citations only as a last resort.
The Santa Barbara City Council voted Tuesday night to educate people about the importance of wearing masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue citations only as a last resort. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

If you are in downtown Santa Barbara or outside without a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t expect to get a ticket. Instead, city officials plan to offer you a mask and educate you.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday night to increase education and outreach, but to issue tickets only as a last resort.

Rob Dayton, the city’s transportation and parking planning manager, said that last weekend between about 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., “about 90 percent” of people were wearing masks, which meant there wasn’t a need for ticketing at the first sight of someone not wearing a mask.

Council members on Tuesday wrestled with the idea of enforcement vs. education and settled on encouraging people to wear masks and to do targeted enforcement only with groups flagrantly disregarding the rules.

“I want our businesses to thrive,” Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said. “I want my kids to be able to go back to school. I want to go back to teaching in the classroom. I miss it terribly. I want the public back in our meetings and for council members to be able to see each other again. I want to hug my mom. I want to get past this with COVID. We need people to be wearing their masks.”

The city, beginning Wednesday, plans to install more signs along State Street and throughout the city urging people to wear masks.

The meeting was punctuated by a couple of raw exchanges between council members, an indication of how the pandemic has people on edge.

Councilman Eric Friedman at one point rattled off an array of statistics from the county to show that most of the COVID-19 cases are in Santa Maria and Lompoc and at the Lompoc Federal Prison.

“We have 44 active cases,” Friedman said. “I just want to put that into perspective so that we understand the numbers we are dealing with. I think it is important when we say we need to do enforcement in certain areas such as State Street because as you have heard we have a 90 percent compliance rate.”

He then said that enforcement is a tricky issue because the city would be enforcing in outdoor areas, where the county Public Health Department has said the risk of transmission is lower. 

Friedman then said that for one of his family members — who practices the Jewish faith in Southern California, and whose synagogue was recently vandalized — ticketing for masks triggers terrible feelings. 

“She said that forcing tickets on people who don’t wear masks, for her, it just drums up images of 1930s Germany, and those are real concerns that I think we need to address, because ultimately the real enforcement would need to take place in people’s homes because that’s where it is transmitting,” Friedman said. 

The comment prompted Councilwoman Meagan Harmon to chime in.

“Comparing mask enforcement to murderous fascism in Nazi Germany is just about the least reasonable thing that I can imagine, and I don’t think that puts us on a good footing to have this conversation,” Harmon said. “That’s not what we need to be projecting to people, that the conversation is a choice between fascism and mask enforcement.”

That wasn’t the only tense exchange during the meeting. 

Councilman Mike Jordan asked about whether the city was going to take enforcement action against bicyclists in the 500 block of State Street, where there is a concentration of outdoor dining, because the riders were purposely popping “wheelies” in his observation last Sunday.

“They were going right by the guys in the booth,” Jordan said. “They are clearly there to do them right there in other people’s faces where they are told not to do it.”

Jordan then joked that maybe the guys at the mask booth “need a stick to stick in the spokes.”

The comment did not leave a good impression on Councilman Oscar Gutierrez.

“To make comments about having city staff putting sticks in their spokes, these are children we are talking about,” Gutierrez said. “I am not a parent, but I am pretty sure that they wouldn’t want someone saying that about their kids.”

Gutierrez said he was concerned about enforcement targeting only people of color.

“I am worried that this could be used as Santa Barbara’s version of stop and frisk, especially as it comes to our youth,” he said.

Public speaker Mark Alvarado said that for youths, who haven’t been able to go to school, bike riding is a healthy outlet.

“The bicycle situation has been going on for a long time, and it is a good thing,” Alvarado said. “There might be instances of unacceptable behavior, but it really goes back to what are we doing for comprehensive youth services. This is just an indication that we have to figure out a way to partner with our schools. We’re going in this direction of criminalizing youth just for being on their bikes.”

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez said that if the city is going to enforce compliance among youth bike riders that it needs to enforce compliance among people who aren’t wearing masks.

“I don’t feel comfortable attacking the youth, but we’re not really enforcing the wearing of masks,” she said. “We need to focus on this pandemic. If citations are going to be out there for the youth riding bikes, then citations need to be out there for people not wearing a mask. If we are going to go hard on the youth, we need to go hard on those not wearing a mask.”

Dayton also noted that some restaurants downtown were encroaching too far into the street. He said they need to be at least 7 feet from the center line. He also acknowledged that social distancing of 6 feet on State Street really isn’t happening when it comes to restaurants.

“If we really wanted to get 6 feet away from everyone, there would be very little room for dining,” Dayton said. 

Activist Anna Marie Gott urged the city to issue tickets against people who don’t wear masks in public. She sent the city photos of people at the Mission Rose Garden playing beer pong, without masks, and not socially distancing. She said at the city’s rate of enforcement, “it will be this time next year before anyone gets a ticket.”

“We are five months into a pandemic that has basically grinded business to a halt,” Gott said. “We have people in ICUs dying.”

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