The Santa Barbara County community has done a good job holding down coronavirus infection even as local agencies are expanding and strengthening their efforts, but health officials on Tuesday urged residents to be more vigilant about precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Financially, the impact to the county of the shelter-at-home order and social distancing might be less, proportionately, than it will be to cities, but the county is still facing a loss of at least $3 million in general fund revenue for the current fiscal year, county officials said.
But the policies that are keeping down transmission of the virus were also criticized for their broad focus and impact on the economy.
Those and other issues came up in a report to the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday in Santa Barbara.
The number of COVID-19 cases escalated within hours after the report was presented.
“We really need as a community to flatten the curve, to be really good partners to reduce the spread in the community,” said Public Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso.
She was referring to the curve on a graph accompanying the report that showed how implementation of mitigation measures had kept the level of infection at just above the level of the health-care system’s capabilities rather than spiking far above.
“Through these behavior changes we can see the difference in our own community,” she said.
But 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam questioned implementing a full shelter-at-home policy and the lack of available COVID-19 tests to check everyone, even those not showing any symptoms.
With 494 people being tested and only 19 confirmed cases when Do-Reynoso delivered her report — 246 test results were pending — Adam noted that only a tenth of a percent of the county’s population had been tested.
But if all the people who had the virus but are not showing symptoms could be identified and isolated, “then you don’t have to decimate the economy,” Adam said.
His comments were echoed by Andy Caldwell, representing the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, who asked that the Public Health Department put numbers on the graph of curves.
“The original curve is an explosion of infection rates, and we expected that,” Caldwell said. “You went to overkill, in our opinion, in shutting down the economy.”
He said the public health officer had it right when he recommended only the most vulnerable — the elderly with underlying health problems — should be isolated because 95% to 99% of the population would not be affected.
“We have self-inflicted blows to our economy,” he said.
Jeff Frapwell, assistant county executive officer, said the county is estimating it will lose $1.8 million in sales tax and $1 million in transient occupancy tax revenues as well as $250,000 in interest income for a total of about $3 million this fiscal year.
“That number will increase,” he said, adding it did not include impacts to the county’s operating funds.
“If there is any silver lining in this, the percentage [of revenue] coming from economically sensitive sources is small,” he said.
He said he doesn’t see a significant adjustment in property taxes unless the situation is really prolonged, although properties assessed based on income would be the most vulnerable.
Harry Hagan, tax collector and treasurer, said he couldn’t change the date for the second installment of property taxes, but he said he can waive penalties for late payment due to impacts from COVID-19.
Hagan said the board could also close his office on the due date as if it was a holiday, which would delay it until the next day it was open — which could be weeks if the current situation continues.
Adam advised fellow board members and staff to prepare for a worsening situation.
“They’re talking about massive numbers of bankruptcies even now,” he said. “Next year, I would recommend we start hoarding cash to get through something worse, and if we end up with a pile of cash, what’s wrong with that?”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino also found a bright spot amid the gloom.
“I’ve noticed a change in our community,” Lavagnino said. “We seem more connected.”