Board approves sending letter to Gov. Newsom to allow in-person church services
Santa Barbara County is now officially back in the most restrictive purple tier in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy after experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday discussed the recent demotion, announced by the state on Monday, while also voting to direct county staff to draft a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting that places of worship be given the same COVID-19 restrictions as retail businesses.
Drafting the letter passed with a 3-2 vote at the meeting, with 2nd District Supervisor and Board Chair Gregg Hart and 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann the two no votes.
The county’s demotion comes following a recent spike in COVID-19 cases locally, which mirrors what is happening across many California counties and across the country.
Under the new tier status, brought into effect locally with the Health Officer Order issued Monday night, places of worship must move to outdoor-only operations, as must gyms and fitness centers, family entertainment centers, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, aquariums, and cardrooms. Retail businesses such as bookstores, clothing stores, and shoe stores can operate with indoor occupancy limited to 25%.
The question of why places of worship haven’t been allowed to hold indoor operations amid the pandemic has been something of a hot topic since the onset of COVID-19. At Tuesday’s meeting, the subject was breached by 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
“Everybody is struggling to figure out what is the justification that allows you to be able to go into retail with 25%, but you can’t go to your place of worship, you have to be outside,” he said.
Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso said the justification for restricting churches and other places of worship to outdoor services is because social distancing and mask wearing may be disregarded because most attendees have familiarity with one another.
“What I’ve heard is unease with the context of how people gather in an indoor church,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said.
Later in the meeting, Mr. Lavagnino made a motion for staff to send a letter to the governor requesting that places of worship be treated the same as retail businesses.
Fourth District Supervisor and Board Vice-Chair Peter Adam was in support of the motion and said whether places of worship hold indoor services should be left up to them.
“I think we need to allow people to make those choices, and especially with respect to practice of religion,” he said.
He added that the restrictions on religious services were “draconian” and that he couldn’t believe the issue hadn’t been litigated yet.
Mr. Hart said allowing places of worship to hold indoor services was a “dangerous idea.” Pointing to a graph showing the county’s seven-day average adjusted case rate per 100,000 residents since February, the board chair said the current growth of local COVID-19 cases is on a trajectory to create a spike larger than that which occurred over the summer.
“This is the moment to maintain our vigilance and our resolve, and control that from happening, or not,” he said.
He added that the public is being asked to wear masks and maintain social distancing over a period of time in order to prevent a massive death toll.
“I don’t think this extreme or unwarranted in response to the threat that we are facing, and I think this is the perfect moment for us to decide what side of that effort we are on. Are we going to stay the course and protect our residents and neighbors, or are we going to quit because we are tired? The virus isn’t going to stop because we are tired,” he said.
Ms. Hartmann was also against the idea of sending a letter to the governor so the county can avoid a spike in hospitalizations, as was Dr. Do-Reynoso.
“I professionally through many discussions with my colleagues, as well as with our health officer, we do not believe that inside church services during a purple tier where there’s widespread is the most prudent,” she said.
While 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said he didn’t think places of worship holding indoor services would be the most prudent course of action, he expressed support for sending a letter on the grounds that he didn’t think commerce should be given preferential treatment over exercising religious liberty.
“The bottom line is, I do not want to live in a society where money and commercial activity matters more than our deepest held religious freedoms,” he said.
Many of the public commenters at Tuesday’s meeting were critical of further restrictions and changes the governor made to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Under Gov. Newsom’s changes, a county’s test positivity data will be from a four-day lag rather than a seven-day lag, counties will be moved to a more restrictive tier with one week of worsening metrics rather than the previous two weeks, and can be moved back more than one tier at a time if metrics determine it is needed.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported 36 daily cases of COVID-19 in the county on Tuesday, bringing its total number of confirmed cases up to 10,612. There were no deaths reported on Tuesday.
Of the 10,612 confirmed cases, 10,224 of them are recovered, 255 are still infectious, and 133 are individuals who have died.
A plurality of the daily cases from Tuesday, 12, were in Santa Maria. Seven were in Santa Barbara, four were in Lompoc, the South County Unincorporated Area and Isla Vista each had three, Orcutt had two, and Goleta, the Santa Ynez Valley, and the unincorporated area of the Goleta Valley and Gaviota each had one.
Two daily cases from Tuesday are still pending.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District posted a video Tuesday of Superintendent Hilda Maldonado addressing the purple tier assignment.
“At this time, we will be consulting with our school board on next steps,” she said. “The purple tier means that schools are not allowed to open. If we do remain in purple and we apply for a waiver and it is approved, that means we can reopen as planned on Jan. 19.
“As a reminder, waivers for reopening are not an option for junior high and high schools. We realize that there are many unknowns, but at this time we will continue to plan for three possible scenarios.”
The first scenario, under the purple tier designation, would include reopening elementary grades via waivers, while keeping distance learning in place at the secondary level. The second scenario, also in the purple tier, would be to continue distance learning for all grade levels.
The third scenario, under the red or less-restrictive tier, would include reopening all district campuses on Jan. 19 with a hybrid model.
Last week, district parents were asked about their position on in-person hybrid or distance learning for their student.
“Depending on where we are as a county in terms of transmission rates, we will be communicating with families to clarify our next steps,” Ms. Maldonado said. “At this time, only existing cohorts will continue and no new cohorts will be added. Under the more restrictive purple tier, cohorts may not mix and are limited to 14 students and two adults. Students will be permitted to participate in one cohort group.”
Ms. Maldonado asked parents to check the district website, www.sbunified.org, and view the frequently asked questions page, which addresses more than 30 questions regarding the current COVID-19 situation.
In other news Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department announced that two custody deputies have tested positive for COVID-19. The two deputies, who reportedly had unrelated possible exposures, sought community testing on Saturday and both tested positive, said Lt. Erik Rainey, sheriff’s spokesman.
The two tested negative on Nov. 10 while on duty at the Santa Barbara County Main Jail as part of routine surveillance testing. One of the custody deputies began experiencing symptoms on Saturday after a potential family exposure and was tested. The other custody deputy was notified through contact tracing of a potential exposure in Los Angeles County and sought testing.
Both deputies last worked in the custody facility on Nov. 12. All deputies assigned to custody facilities within the Sheriff’s Office are required to wear personal protective equipment while in the facilities.
This brings the total number of Sheriff’s employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 to 45, including 42 who have recovered, Lt. Raney said.
News-Press Associate Editor contributed to this report.