The Solvang City Council has voted to not actively enforce COVID-19 public health orders that have limited business operations.
The Solvang City Council has voted to not actively enforce COVID-19 public health orders that have limited business operations. (KEYT photo)

A lame duck Solvang City Council’s declaration to ignore state and county public health orders related to COVID-19 cases has been heralded by some but could pose problems in the future for the agency and businesses that don’t comply.

The City Council voted Monday to support the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ intent to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for removal from a broader Southern California region and creation of a new tri-counties area for COVID-19 restrictions.

“The community of Solvang has done a great job at being mindful, safe and responsible while keeping our local economy going during these challenging times,” outgoing Mayor Ryan Toussaint wrote. “The current order by the state is ill-conceived, unnecessary and, quite frankly, negligent when it comes to protecting our community in a safe, balanced and sane manner.”

However, the Solvang council’s actions and statements went beyond supporting the county letter, with members voting not to actively enforce public health orders and calling for status quo to keep outdoor dining and other measures in place despite the new ban. At least one member declared that businesses can operate as they had before the limited stay-at-home order.

The mixed message has raised concerns and led to pressure for other cities to take similar action.

“The county counsel in the board hearing explained that this could potentially really put businesses in Solvang at risk if they’re getting the message from their elected leadership that this is a viable legal option when, in fact, it isn’t,” Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors chair Gregg Hart told Noozhawk.

Businesses violating the orders risk any licenses, including those from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department or the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Additionally, a city could put its state funding at risk or face problems with obtaining liability insurance, Hart said.

“It’s a serious matter, and the governor has been very clear that they’re going to be enforcing this order through all the state regulatory tools available to them,” Hart said.

During the Friday afternoon COVID-19 update, Hart said Solvang may not have been aware that COVID-19 case rates have reached their highest level since the pandemic began.

“Fortunately, despite the Solvang City Council’s statement, businesses in the city of Solvang are complying with the public health order because they care about their neighbors and they want to do the right thing,” Hart said Friday.

Regional leaders hope the state will lump Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties into one region to avoid severe restrictions now in place, such as halting outside dining and closing salons. Those restrictions returned last week as the broader Southern California region experiences a larger outbreak affecting hospitals.

“It’s critically important, right now especially, that everyone cooperate together to reduce the spread of the virus and keep our cases and hospitalizations as low as possible,” Hart said. “All of the businesses in our county depend on everyone working together, and I’m hopeful that the city of Solvang will be a productive, cooperative partner in our joint effort to work with the governor and create a new path for us to exit sooner than would be the base.”

It’s not known when or if Newsom might rule on the request from the three counties to create a separate subregion.

On Thursday night, the City of Buellton discussed holding a special meeting next on the topic, but made it clear they would not follow Solvang’s lead.

“It deserves a conversation,” Mayor Holly Sierra said. “I don’t think a City Council telling their businesses to ignore state mandates is the right answer, but I do believe being clumped into the Los Angeles region is a little far-fetched.”

The Solvang council’s action also included appointing an ad hoc committee, not enforcing state and county orders and pursuing the status quo for outdoor dining plus other measures. 

“My concern with this is the legality and where does the liability fall if the city decides to not follow the state or county mandates?” departing Councilwoman Karen Waiite said. “Does this fall on liability of the city, or will this fall on the liability of each individual business owner, restaurant?”

City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt said the city could follow the lead of two cities, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach, that declared as public spaces the tables and chairs for outside dining. That allows diners to use them for takeout orders, which likely would not create a liability, he said.

“I believe this city needs to do something to keep these business open. We’ve been through enough. The people here have suffered. Anything we could do to assist our businesses, I would vote wholeheartedly and take the heat where it comes from,” said Councilman Robert Clarke, the only incumbent remaining on the panel.

Wullbrandt said some cities have looked at steps to allow restaurants to provide takeout dining in the redesignated “public spaces” or former outdoor dining areas.

“We need to let our businesses know that as of tonight they can go about their business like they had just done this weekend,” Councilman Daniel Johnson said Monday. 

On Monday night, Mayor Toussaint, Waite and Johnson will be replaced by Mayor-Elect Charlie Uhrig plus newcomers Claudia Orona and Mark Infanti. 

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