After an unpredictable pandemic year, Santa Barbara County’s return to the red tier this week brought renewed hope to Chamber of Commerce officials that economic relief and recovery is on the way.
Over the course of the pandemic, Chamber officials across the county watched as the virus squelched business activity and wreaked havoc on long-standing small businesses and mom and pop shops.
Though businesses suffered enormous losses during the COVID crisis, commerce officials say a return to the red tier could give struggling businesses the boost they need to make it out the other side of the pandemic.
“I think (the red tier) is just another step toward the light at the end of the tunnel … I think for the businesses, it’s a welcome relief,” Kathy Vreeland, executive director of the Buellton Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, told the News-Press.
Chambers farther down the coast are also sharing this same sense of optimism.
For officials in the South Coast Chamber of Commerce, the return to the red tier signals the end of a long advocacy fight with the state on behalf of struggling business owners.
Back in January, Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the South Coast Chamber, championed a petition that urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to reconsider lockdowns in Santa Barbara County. The petition garnered thousands of signatures from residents and local business owners who agreed that businesses should be able to operate during the pandemic while practicing proper precautions.
After months of advocating for a change in tier status, Ms. Miller told the News-Press that the chamber is “very happy” to be moving forward with restrictions in the less severe red tier.
“This starts to give businesses the opportunity to move toward recovery, and with openings in vaccine eligibility … We’re seeing this as good progress for the future opening of businesses and business recovery,” Ms. Miller said.
In February, the South Coast Chamber rolled out phase one of its Roadmap to Recovery Plan, which advised businesses on the best operational practices during the pandemic and set benchmark goals for reopening.
Though some of the Chamber’s reopening goals may have seemed ambitious at the time, the Chamber is not far off in its predictions. According to the phase one plan, the Chamber made a goal to open schools by March 1, provide vaccines for all by April 30 and allow small group travel by May 31. With President Joe Biden promising vaccine availability for all by May 1 and small group gatherings by July 4, the Chamber’s timeline is not far off federal projections.
With a successful first rollout of the plan, officials in the chamber plan to develop a phase two plan for release in the coming months, Ms. Miller said.
Despite an increased sense of hope among Chamber officials in Buellton and the South Coast, both Ms. Vreeland and Ms. Miller recognized there are still challenges to be conquered.
In Buellton, the hospitality and tourism industries were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Without a steady stream of travelers making their way to the Santa Ynez Valley over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, many hotels and restaurants were forced to lay off their staffs until travel returned.
But now, as vaccine distribution has travelers eyeing summer getaways, Ms. Vreeland said hotel and restaurant owners are struggling to get their staff to come back to work due to high unemployment payouts.
“It’s been a double-edged sword,” Ms. Vreeland said, noting that in the months to come, restaurants could have difficulty filling holes in their staff even as the world begins to reopen.
On the South Coast, Ms. Miller said the red tier restrictions set businesses on safe footing for relief, yet a full recovery after a year of significant losses could be years in the making.
With COVID restrictions eased in the red tier, Ms. Miller said businesses are feeling relieved yet cautious about the way forward, warning the Chamber that there is still a “long road ahead.”
“With the jubilance of taking steps forward, we are not unaware that this is probably a two to four-year recovery … These losses won’t just be overcome in 30, 60 or 90 days,” Ms. Miller said.