Local leaders in public, private sectors look back and ahead
Editor’s note: On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and on March 15, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his first lockdown order. After a rollercoaster year, Santa Barbara County leaders in the healthcare, government, business and nonprofit sectors talked to the News-Press about the pandemic and what the future may hold. This is the first in a two-part series. The second part will be published Monday, the day before Santa Barbara County is expected to move into the less restrictive red tier.
COVID-19 took a lot.
It took more than 2 million lives worldwide, 500,000 lives nationwide, 50,000 lives statewide and 400 lives countywide.
It took away jobs from 20.5 million people solely in the month of April 2020. It took 1.3 million jobs from leisure and hospitality workers, 58,000 jobs from mining, oil and gas extraction workers, 116,500 jobs from travel and transportation workers, 441,000 jobs from construction workers, and many more, according to AARP reporting.
It took away face-to-face interaction somewhat altogether, replacing it with Zoom meetings, Zoom graduation ceremonies, Zoom happy hours and even Zoom weddings.
It took away Santa Barbara’s in-person Old Spanish Days, Summer Solstice, Earth Day, Halloween and Holiday Parade celebrations, among many others.
It took away handshakes, high-fives, fist bumps, hugs, kisses and even hid smiles and muffled laughter underneath masks.
It took away someone’s favorite mom-and-pop burger joint, someone’s dream wedding, someone’s senior thesis or fifth-grade talent show or book fair, someone’s very first real job — and someone’s grandmother, father, aunt, cousin, sister, brother and best friend.
It took away a sense of security for people, replacing it with fear of the unknown, uncharted territory.
But communities pulled together and improvised.
Santa Barbara’s State Street became a pedestrian promenade. Restaurants moved their tables into parking lots and onto the street and built parklets. Sporting events put cardboard cut-out fans into seats just to encourage the athletes.
Grocery stores started delivering orders right to people’s homes. California schools navigated distance learning for an entire year. Artists held virtual performances free of charge.
Healthcare workers logged thousands of hours of overtime.
The top three fastest developed vaccines in history were all being distributed within a year.
Millions and millions of people made sacrifices to keep themselves and others healthy, because for once, everyone was in the same boat.
Now, as the population becomes more and more vaccinated, things seem to be taking a turn, and top leaders in Santa Barbara County reflected on the past rollercoaster of a year and what it means for the future.
Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Cottage Health, discussed Santa Barbara’s experience with COVID-19.
“It felt like the world was crashing down around us in the Southern California region, the state and the country, and yet, Santa Barbara, in some ways, was the last to fall,” she told the News-Press. “I think that’s just a testament to how well people handled this.”
She said above all else, she and her colleagues learned about the strength and resiliency of Santa Barbara’s medical systems and workers.
“We had EMTs and firefighters showing up to nursing homes when testing wasn’t easily available and bravely doing their job. We had environmental services workers or janitors who cleaned COVID patients’ rooms in the hospitals … Of course, we saw nurses and senior physicians, but also brand new interns, show up day after day and provide excellent up-to-the-minute clinical care,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
“But away from the cameras and the media stories, what happened every day was that our healthcare workers quietly and consistently held the hands of scared patients, and some of those scared patients had COVID.”
She pointed to all the medical advances as a silver lining, such as testing capabilities, molecular testing, genomic sequencing and a generation that is aware of the power of good hygiene and the dangers of a pandemic. In addition, she said the power of the vaccines and Pfizer’s ability to protect against even asymptomatic infection mean “normal” is getting closer and closer.
“I think we are moving very quickly to a post-COVID world that looks a lot more like 2019,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “I really do see nothing but promise and hope that the vast majority of these restrictions are going to hopefully fall by the wayside sooner rather than later.”
On the economic side of things, local restaurateur Aaron Petersen provided a unique perspective, as he owns three Solvang restaurants and opened two more at the Santa Barbara Harbor in the midst of the pandemic.
He praised the city’s help and cooperation in finding a way to keep restaurants afloat, but he wasn’t able to receive federal, state or local financial assistance for his two new restaurants since he opened them after Feb. 10, 2020. And he had no way of knowing construction equipment for his restaurants would get backlogged in China and delay operations even more.
“It’s kind of like when the housing crash took place. It goes to show you that you better be humble about what you do, and you better go at it slowly and think about it,” Mr. Petersen told the News-Press. “Not everything you touch can turn to gold. You’ve got to be able to be flexible and understanding … When people ask me, ‘Would you have done this (if you knew)?’ I say, ‘No.’”
However, he said the pandemic has changed the culture of restaurants altogether, but even more so, bars. Both of Mr. Petersen’s restaurants in Santa Barbara have liquor licenses, but he said because bartenders became unable to serve customers from the bar, his bartenders are now the cooks and make the food and drinks.
“It’s very sad and hard for them. They’ve been really impacted without having a direct relationship with customers. We’re pooling tips more,” he said. “The bar scene will change dramatically.”
Mr. Petersen said restaurants in key destinations such as the Harbor, Stearns Wharf and State Street will be able to recover quickly, but the hidden mom-and-pops will struggle the most.
“I’m hoping people are going to want to come back out and be served and not just do the to-go food, standing at the window, taking the number, sitting down, which a lot of restaurants have switched to,” Mr. Petersen said. “I’m hoping they want to come back and have that experience they’re going to have by sitting down and having a relationship with a server.”
Kristen Miller, the South Coast Chamber of Commerce CEO, said the road to recovery may be long for businesses after the pandemic dealt blows.
“We feel optimistic that the lessened restrictions in the last month, and moving into the red tier, will allow businesses to create long-term plans for continuous operation and a path toward recovery,” she told the News-Press. “The recent access to more funding was also a great start, but we still need more resources for the industries most impacted by COVID.”
The Chamber’s Roadmap to Recovery plan highlights milestones that help businesses for long-term planning, and Phase 2 of the plan will begin soon.
“Our definition of normal might evolve as we come out of COVID. There will be a time when mask wearing and virtual meetings are no longer the standard, but the innovation and reinvention that many businesses have created will remain,” the CEO said. “I know we will someday be back to enjoying familiar community events, like the Lemon Festival, Carpinteria Culinary Crawl and our signature networking events. But I also appreciate the changes that have come along – like the energy from pedestrian-friendly State Street and the ability to work quickly and easily with regional partners in the tri-counties. The innovation we have seen across so many industries is inspiring.”
Monday’s News-Press: Leaders from government and the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County share their perspectives.