A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

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This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.


By Tyler Hayden

Last May, as Santa Barbara County stared down the barrel of a summertime surge in COVID-19 cases, a local resident called officials to complain that a Montecito restaurant was not following the state’s most recent health orders. 

“This restaurant reopened with no social distancing whatsoever,” the person said, according to a record of the conversation. “Managers are not observing posted guidelines. Employees feel they must risk their health in order to work.” 

In the fall, another concerned citizen reported that a Lompoc church was holding regular services, with its leadership contending that “COVID-19 is a hoax and attendees are safe.”

More recently, right before the region experienced its third and worst COVID-19 wave, a resident asked authorities how a Goleta gym could continue operating despite a clear and long-standing directive to close. “Today,” they claimed, “I saw the manager brushing his teeth in the parking lot and spitting on the property of a retirement community next door.”

“How is that allowed?”

These are among more than 2,000 public complaints filed with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department against businesses since the pandemic began. Others zeroed in on hotels, spas, hardware stores, and even doctor’s offices. One dental practice was the subject of nearly a dozen calls and emails after an office worker contracted COVID-19 and employees were allegedly directed by managers to “keep this quiet and not tell the patients.”

Despite this steady stream of concern voiced by residents ― which continues today, a full year into the health crisis, with the county still mired in the state’s most restrictive purple tier ― officials maintain that education and communication is the best way to cajole compliance from those who break the rules.

Other than a single preliminary injunction filed by the District Attorney’s Office against a Buellton gym very early in the pandemic, and minor charges against a few infected people who broke their mandatory quarantine, Santa Barbara authorities have not taken any punitive measures against either businesses or individuals. That means no criminal charges for violating the safety orders of the county’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, or administrative remedies, such as revoking a restaurant’s license for breaching guidelines set forth by the Environmental Health Services (EHS) department. 

But that doesn’t mean meaningful action hasn’t been taken, explained Kelly Hubbard, director of the Santa Barbara’s Office of Emergency. Instead, she said, the county has been diligently working hand-in-hand with businesses who may, knowingly or unknowingly, run afoul of the ever-shifting landscape of COVID-19 regulations. “I think there’s a sense out there that nothing is being done,” Hubbard said. “But there is a huge task force of staff working on this every day, every week.”

Hubbard stressed that the task force ― composed of representatives from city governments, attorneys offices, law enforcement agencies, and other entities ― documents and follows up on every citizen complaint. Some, however, can be difficult to verify. Others may prove totally unfounded. “We can’t issue enforcement unless it’s substantiated by a government official,” she explained.

When there’s enough evidence that a violation did occur, Hubbard explained, the county’s standard response is to dispatch ambassadors of their RISE (Reopening in Safe Environment) program, who help operators understand where they slipped up and what corrections need to be made. Sometimes, a deputy will tag along. “The majority of people we talk to, we don’t see complaints there again,” Hubbard said.

Last month, the Independent filed a request for statistics related to these outreach efforts, including how many house calls have been made, to which businesses, and so on. The county has so far not given a full response, but Hubbard said she would be providing the information to the Board of Supervisors at their March 3 meeting.

Gyms remain an especially difficult business sector to manage, Hubbard went on. The task force discovered early on that, unlike restaurants, who answer to EHS, or salons and barbers, who are overseen by the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, gyms have no such regulatory body. Therefore, no clear administrative option exists. “This is a really weird one that’s taken a while to figure out,” said Hubbard. A large portion of the 2,000-plus public complaints are related to gyms.

John Savrnoch, Santa Barbara’s chief deputy district attorney, said the county is keenly aware of the intense headwinds all business operators face and hesitates to do anything that would add to their problems. “We continue to be very sympathetic to the pressure that businesses are under,” he said. “Particularly small businesses. This is people’s lives, their life savings.” And it’s not just the county that is taking a light touch with enforcement, Savrnoch explained. Individual cities and their police departments haven’t shown an appetite to drop the hammer, either. “There is not one entity involved in this that is looking to pursue criminal or punitive penalties,” he said.

Savrnoch believes Santa Barbara County isn’t alone in this strategy, as jurisdictions up and down the state try to balance public health with their economic lifeblood while navigating the uncharted legal territory that has come with the pandemic. “There are still a number of cases working their way through the courts that will help define a legally correct response to an alleged violation,” he said.

In the meantime, Savrnoch said, he and his colleagues will continue working behind the scenes to bring businesses up to speed on the latest regulations. “People should know the rules, but the rules change,” he said. “We don’t want to punish anyone. We just want to keep them safe.”

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a-1614199655 Feb 24, 2021 12:47 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

Did you even read the article?

The DA has issued a total of 1, yes ONE, preliminary injunction, for a Buellton gym. Every single other complaint was dealt with through "education" and basically hand-holding the scofflaws through the steps of making their businesses COVID safe.

OEM says it works and they don't get repeat complaints.

Voice of Reason Feb 24, 2021 01:34 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

Don't forget the ones that also flouted their own covid mandates that us peasants were supposed to follow. But they'll get elected again, in California people only vote based on whether or not there is a (D) or (R) next to the name on the ballot, rather than the candidates actual record and actions.

PitMix Feb 24, 2021 02:30 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

VOR, if the Rs keep running Trumps, Greenes, and Rohrabachers, D will always be a better choice. Rs care about keeping their fortunes, and Ds have to care about everything else. I find it amusing that Rs are now talking about inflation and the deficit after spending us into oblivion for the last 4 yrs and decreasing revenues with millionaire tax cuts.

a-1614211168 Feb 24, 2021 03:59 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

3:45 PM - Yes, it's quite apparent that the new administration cares a lot more about doing their jobs - keeping their constituents safe and healthy, than the corrupt administration of the last 4 years, which had a laser-like focus on making the rich richer, populace be damned. Just wait for all the discoveries of criminal activity to come now that the head grifter from Florida is no longer getting a free pass.

Chip of SB Feb 24, 2021 02:05 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

Is there any evidence that targeting certain business has achieved any beneficial result? Was the entire effort of targeting certain businesses nothing more than scapegoating? It will be interesting to look back on this at some point once we learn more about COVID and consider whether any of the efforts to “slow the spread” actually did any good, or whether the virus simply ran its natural course until herd immunity was achieved. It seems to me that most of the restrictions that have been put in place were based on little more than superstition.

bosco Feb 24, 2021 02:35 PM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

I believe it's possible that it may have slowed the curve but likely did very little in overall spread. The positive here is it would be a benefit to the healthcare system if true. The post pandemic analysis will be interesting. The summertime wave had some correlation with a loosening of original restrictions but then numbers came down naturally with no new restrictions being put in place. We went from August to November with low case rates and less restrictions. It wasn't until post holidays (cooler weather, family gatherings, etc.) when the second wave hit. It really is sad to see that schools, restaurants, gyms, etc. bearing the brunt of the restrictions when it's very likely they only pose a small (and likely insignificant) role in community transmission. Since day 1 I have heard my MD friends speak about how trying to "beat" a virus is a losing battle, nature will always take it's course. The vaccine is the only effective deterrent.

GoletaMan Feb 25, 2021 10:16 AM
A Year into the Pandemic, Education Remains the Strategy for COVID-19 Scofflaws

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

"Despite this steady stream of concern voiced by residents ― which continues today, a full year into the health crisis, with the county still mired in the state’s most restrictive purple tier ― officials maintain that education and communication is the best way to cajole compliance from those who break the rules."

Sounds like reasonable and calm governance to me.

I remember fondly a time when we were free to gather (it said so in the Constitution) ...we got to make our own decisions about risks we were willing to take on a day to day basis; and that if there was some government overreach, it should start with the big corporate businesses (ie: Target, Costco, Home Depot, Vons...etc).

The small businesses like restaurants, startups, and mom&pop shops should be left alone to flourish and act as a "release valve" for the population to gather rather than concentrating us all into a few huge mega-boxes.

Someone asked me recently how I would feel if I inadvertently infected someone while out in public. I said I'd feel bad for them but my next thought would be "Well I suppose they knew the risks, it takes two to tango (or infect one another and they were out there too)...you know..stepping out that front door is a dangerous thing like Tolkien wrote in "The Hobbit"

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