Empty streets in downtown Solvang.
The streets of downtown Solvang, normally bustling with tourists, are nearly empty under the state stay-at-home order. City leaders voted Monday to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom demanding he let the Danish capital of America decide when and how to reopen. (KCOY News photo)

With normally busy streets and sidewalks empty of tourists, the Solvang City Council has voted to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom demanding he let the Danish capital of America decide when and how to reopen.

The City Council took the action, one of several related to the COVID-19 public emergency, on Monday night.

Councilwoman Karen Waite voted against the motion, which also includes allowing people back into Solvang parks.

A letter from San Luis Obispo County leaders to the state drew favorable comments from the council, which expressed frustration with Santa Barbara County officials.

“I feel like Santa Barbara County has let down its cities and all the locals as far as not getting input, whereas SLO has everyone’s signature on the bottom supporting the measure,” Councilman Daniel Johnson said.

“I wholeheartedly support what SLO is trying to do and they’re trying to, I think, save more lives in what they’re doing than what Santa Barbara County’s doing. I’m just disappointed in Santa Barbara County’s lack of foresight to already have this plan in place,” Johnson added.

California’s governor issued shelter-at-home orders in mid-March due to the quickly growing numbers of COVID-19 patients in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

“This haphazard, almost hypocritical approach to reopening doesn’t make sense to me, and I think we need to take the lead in what’s best for us,” Councilman Chris Djernaes said .

“You can buy liquor and lottery tickets but you can’t go to church,” Councilman Robert Clarke said.

On Tuesday, Newsom said state health officials believe “we are weeks, not months, away from making meaning modifications” to some closure orders.

San Luis Obispo County has logged 173 COVID-19 cases and one death among a population of more than 283,111. Santa Barbara County’s cases were nearing 500, with seven deaths among 446,500 residents.

The Santa Ynez Valley has held steady at five cases.

Closures mean Solvang expects to lose $500,000 in tax revenue monthly, city leaders have said.

Djernaes asked if City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt could assess a phased approach to reopen based on legal liability. 

“How about us getting sued because we open everything up and we will accidentally kill people?” Waite asked.

While chaffing at restrictions and critical of county and state planning, the council failed to offer its own plan for how to reopen Solvang, and talked about holding a workshop. 

City staff said options under consideration include closing Copenhagen Drive to allow for better social distancing and proposing ideas to the county as safe measures for reopening.

Mayor Ryan Toussaint said Solvang needs to draft various scenarios as part of its planning so the business community can be prepared. 

“You can open up all of Solvang today but if L.A.’s totally shut, and that’s 90 percent of our market, what are we doing anyway,” Toussaint said. 

But Johnson asked for a more tangible step such as reopening parks in addition to sending the letter.

Not all cities have closed their parks, with Santa Maria employees conducting regular sanitizing of playgrounds, rails, posts, and other items at parks and trails. 

“No one’s forcing anyone to go out. We’re just saying we’re moving in this direction, and by opening the parks that’s a definite signal … we’re trying what we can do as a city to bring this economy back for the future for our kids, for everyone,” Johnson said. 

“I’d like to see the council take the lead in breaking the psychology of fear that’s literally destroying us,” Djernaes said. “This disease is manageable. In fact the total number of deaths is no different than the flu.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pinpointed deaths for the seasonable influenza from October to early April at 24,000 to 62,000 while COVID-19 fatalities of 59,000 have occurred in less than three months.

In another COVID-19 matter, People Helping People’s Dean Palius asked for funding to help boost its program to feed those in need. 

The City Council agreed to provide $10,000 to the organization and $5,000 per quarter or up to $30,000, with Solvang expecting to be reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

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.