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Inside New County Game Plan to Re-Open the Local Economy: A Deep Dive with Sup. Gregg Hart

The county’s just-released, 80-page strategic plan for re-opening from the pandemic shutdown touches on virtually every aspect of community life -- from funerals, restaurant seating, and pickle ball courts to Zumba classes, nose piercings and Holy Communion.

Titled “Reopening in Safe Environment (RISE Guide)," the document is written by a team of local doctors with input from 350 “stakeholders” throughout the county. You can read it here. It will be before the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday.

As guidance for navigating the worst public health emergency in a century, overlain by the biggest economic disaster since the Depression, the report not only addresses problems unique to the pandemic – diagnostic testing and tracking down the infected, for example – but also surfaces and magnifies pre-existing social problems – like the shortage of quality child care and the chronic issues of homelessness.

“It speaks to the complexity” of the pandemic challenge, Supervisor Gregg Hart said of the report. “It’s really an extraordinary effort, bringing all these people together, having them focus on this very fine, granular detail of information for our community."

When (if?) Gov. Gavin Newsom scales back authority under his shutdown, stay-at-home orders, Hart added, the report “is going to help industries and businesses" in finding a pathway to reopening.

In a wide-ranging, 30-minute Newsmakers interview about local impacts of the coronavirus calamity, Hart, who is the public face of the local response to the coronavirus, took a deep dive into details of the report, while providing updates on significant changes in the local response since his last conversation with us on April 14.

“We’re not going to get to a place where we know everything that we need to know to make the next decision,” he said. “We’re just going to have to take the information that we have available in the moment and do the best job in that moment, and be ready and flexible to change in the next moment when the information changes."

“Every level of government is wrestling with the same fundamental challenge," Hart added, "how can we keep people safe and reopen our economy?

Six key takeaways:

Testing and tracing. A month ago, Hart told us that the county was nowhere near the level of testing need to begin to relax the economic shutdown; now, after the opening of three new testing sites around the county, he said, “we’re getting to within hailing distance” of the ratio goal stated in the report -- two tests per day for each 1000 people in the county – about 900.

Also, he said, the county has transferred some public employees and recruited others from the non-profit sector to assemble a team of 72 “disease detectives,” who locate and test people who have been in close contact with those who test positive for the virus.

The contact tracing operation is a work in progress, Hart indicated, and remains dependent on voluntary self-quarantine by those who test positive, a stark difference in the “test-trace-isolate” process as applied in China, South Korea and other countries that have been successful in suppressing the virus, where self-quarantine is mandatory and monitored.

Notable: Gregg said that, from being overwhelmed, the three sites offering diagnostic tests -- in Santa Maria, Lompoc and Santa Barbara - actually are being somewhat underutilized: "We have the ability now to test asymptomatic" people who are concerned, he said. "Folks who want to be tested, there are slots available for people to get…I don’t believe all those slots are being utilized, so there is an opportunity for more testing."

State vs. counties. While the RISE report is sweeping in scope and painstaking in detail, it is unclear precisely what function it will serve, Hart said. Several weeks ago, when Newsom said he would put authority for reopening in the hands of county officials, it was envisioned as an early action document; now the governor has changed his stance, reserving the power to make county-by-county re-opening decisions from Sacramento.

“Initially we had convened this stakeholder group and these medical professionals…anticipating the moment in time when the governor would hand off the decision-making to our county to reopen businesses on some sort of a rational science and medically based system,” Gregg said. “Now it’s not one hundred percent clear how it’s going to fit in with the (governor’s) process going forward. But we want the board to adopt it (on Tuesday), we want to include it in any documentation that we end up sending the state to make our case that we’re ready to take more of the authority back.”

Prince Gavin. Hart said that Newsom “absolutely” blindsided local officials with his policy change.

“We thought it was going a different direction …based on the direct comments from the governor that…counties would have a substantial and meaningful role to play in this process,” Hart said. “As time went on…the governor changed his direction and decided that primarily the state would be the one that controls the dimmer switch and he and his medical experts would make the calls.”

The prison. Hart, carefully measuring his words, said that “there are baby steps of progress” in the county's effort to gain more and better information from the federal Bureau of Prisons about what exactly is going on with the disease inside the Lompoc penitentiary.

“I’m frustrated, every other elected official (is) frustrated and we would like a lot more transparency from the Bureau of Prisons," he said. "This is something, I have to remind myself every day, it is easy to indulge the frustration and it is important, critical, that we not do that and find a way to have a productive relationship."

He also said that state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson and Assembly member Monique Limon continue to press the governor’s office for a waiver that would back out the Covid-19 numbers for the federal prison from the county's stats, for purposes of calculating metrics to qualify for reopening: “It is inherently unfair to hold us accountable to that standard – the inmates that are incarcerated in the facility are not a public health and safety threat to our community.”

The City. Hart said it is unclear exactly what role the economic reopening plan recently prepared and released by a business task force appointed by Mayor Cathy Murillo will have, at the mercy, again, of the vagaries of Newsom’s decisions.

“It isn’t necessarily clear whether the city’s document or the county’s document today is going to have a role to play,” he said. “Ideally, ultimately, all these things are integrated (but) it’s probably not well coordinated at this point.”

Going rogue? At a Zoom meeting with a group of city business leaders, SB council member Mike Jordan recently suggested that the city could forge its own path in reopening: “The kind of one picture and one big paintbrush paints all for the county of Santa Barbara (sic) does not recognize the capability or the flexibility that our little city, or maybe some other cities, could employ, to keep that number flat or reducing, while still start a measured opening," Jordan said, as reported by Josh Molina.

Hart smiled when asked if he was concerned to hear the suggestion from a city official: “I’ve had a conversation with council member Jordan," he said, "and I think we have a meeting of the minds now.” Butter wouldn't melt.

Watch our entire interview with Gregg Hart by clicking below. The podcast version is here.

Images: Gregg Hart; Covid-19 testing vials (BBC); "Relativity" M.C. Escher; Gavin Newsom; Lompoc federal prison (KSBY); Cathy Murillo; Mike Jordan.

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