Government, nonprofit leaders praise community’s unity and hard work
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 second installment in a two-part series.
People want to help other people.
That fact has stood out during a pandemic that has changed the world, the nation, the county, the neighborhood.
During COVID-19, Santa Barbara County nonprofits stepped up to expand the work they had already been doing in the community to assist others, repairing homes, holding free food pantries, assisting students with remote learning, supplying personal protective equipment, caring for seniors and more.
The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County gained 1,683 new volunteers since the pandemic, and it logged 9,275 volunteer hours during COVID-19, according to Foodbank CEO Erik Talkin.
The Foodbank opened two new warehouses in North and South County to increase assistance, set up more than 50 safe food distribution points, created drive-through pantries and delivered meals to seniors.
“We as an organization are completely changed as a result of how we operate in terms of how we connect with the community,” Mr. Talkin told the News-Press. “We have basically been distributing twice as much food as we normally do.”
The Foodbank’s road ahead is still an uphill battle, as economic indicators show that unemployment or underemployment is going to continue significantly for the next 18 to 24 months. However, the organization is ready and planning to open a new permanent warehouse in Santa Barbara.
“That will allow us to utilize this much larger amount of food coming in that will stay coming in to feed people over the next couple years,” Mr. Talkin said. “We’ve been looking at how we can use these lessons to make our own operations stronger and more scaled up in the community.
“We’re very proud of our staff and how they’ve responded to the situation, and we’re really thrilled at how the community stepped forward to support us.”
Efforts by the community have included everything from C.A.R.E.4Paws’ expansion of its animal services to deliveries of meals for seniors. (Animal shelters and animal nonprofits throughout the county adapted their operations to the pandemic and found homes for pets.)
The community continued to help organizations varying from the United Way to Unity Shoppe, and musicians performed concerts to raise money for the Lobero Theatre, one of the venues struggling during the pandemic.
Although audiences couldn’t go inside auditoriums, theater groups and organizations such as the Santa Barbara Symphony found ways to present virtual performances. That made sense; musicians know how to improvise.
And many people worked to create and deliver masks as Santa Barbara County dealt with an unprecedented year.
Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart was chair of Santa Barbara County’s governing board when the pandemic began in March 2020.
He spoke at numerous press conferences during the initial period of fear and uncertainty.
“One of the most challenging aspects of responding to COVID-19 — especially in the early months — has been the task of providing understandable and accurate information that can empower community members to stay healthy,” Supervisor Hart told the News-Press. “With social media, the 24-hour news cycle and a universal heightened sense of anxiety, we needed to develop trustworthy channels for disseminating information from our health experts.”
To do that, the county held frequent press conferences (sometimes daily), partnered with local media outlets, provided culturally-responsive communications to different segments of the community and established a comprehensive data dashboard.
Supervisor Hart added that outreach is important for the most vulnerable populations, and the county responded to health inequities by creating the Latinx/Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 task force, transitioning approximately 500 people from the streets to housing in 2020 and reducing the local jail population by almost 40% since the start of the pandemic.
“I think all of us have a new sense of what is possible, and we must continue to act with a sense of urgency and ambition in confronting the issues and pursuing opportunities that will remain in Santa Barbara County as COVID-19 subsides,” the supervisor said.
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo said the community is no stranger to disasters, making it through wildfires, the debris flow and more, so the city knows how to activate response systems under pressure and threats to public health and safety.
“Experienced leadership proved essential in responding to the pandemic,” she told the News-Press.
The City Council recently extended the Emergency Economic Recovery Ordinance until March 2022 to allow outdoor operations as needed, which also allows for State Street to remain closed off to vehicular traffic. From rental assistance to creating an economic development plan coming in April, Mayor Murillo said the city is in the process of recovery.
She added that the pandemic didn’t put a hold on issues such as housing affordability, police reform, homelessness, sea level rise or downtown revitalization.
“As a city, we will continue to support our residents through robust library services, beautiful parks and affordable recreation programs,” she said. “As we advance through the reopening tiers, those things will return to normal. We have launched a downtown visioning and planning process, so our village center will be a vital and friendly place for gathering and community activities. The goal is to enhance the downtown experience so that it’s better than before the pandemic.”
The mayor sang praises of city staff for transitioning city services to be delivered online, and to streets maintenance, workers, police officers and park employees “for not missing a beat providing important services.”
However, she pointed to Santa Barbara’s residents as well, who supported local businesses, followed public health guidelines, donated to nonprofits and volunteered.
“I give our residents a lot of respect for being brave and steady as the pandemic unfolded,” Mayor Murillo said. “There was so much we didn’t know. In those early days, everyone was reading as much as they could, following the news, staying home and sacrificing social activities.
“It really hurt to stay away from close family members and friends, but people did it. Some people lost their jobs, some businesses had to close. Yet people have managed to adapt and survive these incredible challenges. I thank them for enduring difficulties in the last year.
“Life may never be normal for people who lost loved ones to this terrible virus, and I hope they find peace once again.”