A Balancing Act

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A Balancing Act
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State Street in downtown Santa Barbara was closed to traffic on Memorial Day (Photo: Jessie Ward)


By Sonia Fernandez, UC Santa Barbara

After more than two months of lockdown, people are chomping at the bit to get back to business. But with COVID-19 still present and co-opting the things we love to do — travel, gather, socialize — reopening Santa Barbara has become a balancing act between economics, public health and policy.

Viewers got a glimpse of that reality in the most recent UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project webinar, the first in a new series titled “EFP Informs,” to examine the specific issues of restarting Santa Barbara’s economy. According to the conversation between EFP director Peter Rupert, Santa Barbara City Administrator Paul Casey and Bob Stout, local business owner and president of the Downtown Santa Barbara business organization, there’s going to be a lot of trial and hopefully not too much error.

“My attitude right now is let’s try stuff and if it’s not perfect, let’s have a little patience with ourselves as a community,” Casey said. “But, let’s try things.”

In that spirit, the community tentatively stepped out for the Memorial Day weekend as restaurants and bars opened for business with new safety protocols. The city ran an experiment with the closure of downtown State Street to vehicles, to allow restaurants to serve more patrons while still maintaining the recommended six-foot social distance. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control department granted permission for alcohol to be served by restaurants outside, one of several temporary regulatory relief measures in response to the pandemic.

It could be a picture of things to come, as local government and industry grapple on a daily basis with what it means to do business in the time of COVID-19. Santa Barbara’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism dollars, a well that went dry from the moment the lockdown began. Federal relief for small businesses has trickled in, but the eight weeks of employee salary coverage by way of the Paycheck Protection Program will run out for many small businesses before they have a chance to turn a profit. And for an economy that encourages visitors from near and far to gather and share experiences, imparting a feeling of safety from the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus is paramount.

“People need to feel safe to come out,” Stout said. “So we need to create an environment that people feel it is safe to come out.”

What that environment is, has yet to be determined as the state continues to ease lockdown pressure, with the support of public health data and perhaps progress toward a vaccine or treatment. And, the panel agreed, that feeling of comfort will differ from place to place in the city.

“What works downtown on State Street is much different than on Milpas or on outer State Street or any other commercial areas,” Casey said. “So we have to be flexible with different approaches for different situations.”

One concern is the possibility of a second, deadlier wave of pandemic that could threaten to knock the community down just as it is picking up the pieces. The city, local business and the community will have to remain vigilant and nimble, the panelists agreed.

Unfortunately, for several downtown businesses that had already been feeling the pinch before the pandemic, the slow move to open may be too little, too late.

“We might have had a 10 to 11% vacancy at the downtown storefronts [before],” Stout said. “That’s definitely going to go up.”

The city’s feeling the strain as well. It’s had to shutter programs and services impacted by the lockdown and lay off employees. Local educational and social services stand to suffer as a result of the $54 billion deficit at the state level, according to Casey.

A light at the end of the tunnel: According to an informal, real-time poll conducted during the webinar, if the economy opened “tomorrow” and the CDC, state and county health guidelines were met in a virus-safe way, a good percentage of respondents would be willing to head out and support their local businesses, including dine-in restaurants (58%), outdoor theater (50%), the zoo (50%) and bars (32%). With tourism at a standstill, the local community will be key to the area’s economic recovery, the panel agreed.

“If you build the downtown for locals, the tourists would love to come,” Rupert said. If it was built for tourists, he added, there’s a chance the tourists might not come and neither would the locals. “I think making it safe and comfortable for the local residents is really the goal.”


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Eggs Ackley May 29, 2020 10:50 AM
A Balancing Act

Wow an economist who gets it!
“If you build the downtown for locals, the tourists would love to come,”
NAS Study:
“Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion... “
So there’s that...

m-cubed May 29, 2020 10:56 AM
A Balancing Act

i just wanna get back in the gym but damn those are like probably the most high-risk of places outside of some sort of doorknob licking club.

a-1590779079 May 29, 2020 12:04 PM
A Balancing Act

Don’t cut local educational and social services, this is what taxpayers are paying for. Cut government employee pensions instead.

love my bubble May 30, 2020 12:57 PM
A Balancing Act

“If you build the downtown for locals, the tourists would love to come,” That is what we have needed for a long time! I love the idea of a portion of State closed and have talked about it for 30 years, after experiencing downtown pedestrian streets in Colorado and other areas. A pedestrian walkway and even a bike lane down the middle would keep the "traffic" manageable.
Somewhere in the last 20+ years a major shift happened that began the "sterilization" of our town. Growing up I never considered SB a city because of the character and beauty of it. Sadly I actually am seeing a more city feel and it does not seem to be working. People used to come for the quaint, eclectic shops up and down State Street and the offbeat, comfortable get-a-way feel of SB. Now they are met with generic-looking areas, planted to look like every other affluent seaside town, big-name stores found in every city and empty storefronts. Seeing that one of the most fun stores with creative local goods, "Plumb Goods" seems to have closed its doors, was incredibly disheartening. Tax those buildings that remain empty like other towns are now doing to give the bulding owners an incentive to rent them (at reasonable rents!) The price jacks have been happening since the 80's, when there were still funky stores and even cool thrift stores to explore, but it is out of control. I can't imagine any mom and pop, or locally-owned store, paying the exorbitant rent that is charged now. The Funk Zone was not welcomed by the city planners/ council at first, but it took off because it had character! And now the Funk Zone rent prices are jacking up and already pricing out the smaller local business owners. I'm tired of greed! How about making a decent amount of money and being part of, and contributing to, our amazing town /city! Build for the Locals and the tourists will come!

a-1590869470 May 30, 2020 01:11 PM
A Balancing Act

We've tried everything possible to theorize everything into ever thinking feedback loops. At this point, we've decided to use common sense. We'll see how that works for a while but certainly, we'll reevaluate at a later date with some costly consultant studies and endless reviews at a later date.

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