Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Santa Maria warns of impact to safety services with projected tax revenue losses

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2020 at 1:51 PM

With more than half of its own hourly workers furloughed, the city of Santa Maria is expecting to lose about $3 million of anticipated sales tax revenue—including a little less than $2 million of Measure U revenue—as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark van de Kamp, the city’s public information manager, said this projected loss is a result of industries struggling “across the board.”

“Hotels are seeing a real impact. Restaurants, under the health order, they’re not allowed to serve in house meals any longer. They must be to-go or curbside or delivery. It could impact automotive sales,” he said. “There’s a number of small businesses that have closed. Businesses of all sizes are definitely feeling the hardship and we really feel for them.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s April 2 announcement allowing the deferral of sales tax payments to local jurisdictions is a step toward financial relief for these affected industries. However, van de Kamp pointed out that the sales tax resources targeted for deferral—particularly those that support Measure U—are a major source of funding for the city’s safety services.

“Ninety percent of every dollar in Measure U revenue goes to police and fire,” van de Kamp said. “The remaining 10 percent is split between quality of life and youth services. So, the lion’s share goes to public safety.”

SAFETY FIRST The city of Santa Maria expects to take a large hit from loss of tax revenue associated with COVID-19 closures and tax deferrals. Safety services, such as the city’s fire department, might see the greatest impact. - FILE PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE
  • FILE PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE
  • SAFETY FIRST The city of Santa Maria expects to take a large hit from loss of tax revenue associated with COVID-19 closures and tax deferrals. Safety services, such as the city’s fire department, might see the greatest impact.
Van de Kamp said that the city had expected to receive $22.8 million in regular sales taxes, and $19.3 million in Measure U sales taxes, a total projection of $42.1 million. With COVID-19 related losses, the city is now looking at just $21.4 million dollars in regular sales tax revenue, and $17.5 million in Measure U revenue.

“We drop from roughly $42 million to $39 million,” van de Kamp said. “That’s about 7.3 percent less than budgeted.”

It will be up to the City Council to decide exactly how the budgetary loss will be distributed. But with public safety getting a majority of the Measure U funds, “it’s going to feel the impact,” van de Kamp said.

He added that the city and local businesses are going to need government intervention to make it through the pandemic. “We’ve been in discussions with our representatives to find relief,” he said. “The suddenness of this plunge in revenues is so fast and so deep, that the way to get through this is the state Legislature and the federal government might be able to provide us some relief.”

The city has been in discussions with U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), and Assemblymembers Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) and Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) to work toward relief for the city and local businesses, van de Kamp said. The city also has a lobbyist in Washington D.C. who is fighting for federal assistance.

“Sales tax is the lifeblood of our budget,” van de Kamp said. “The effect of a downturn is felt pretty quickly, and that’s certainly true now.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

COVID-19 is changing the local childbirth experience

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2020 at 7:13 PM

These are uncertain times for everyone, but for many pregnant women and expecting families, those feelings are especially magnified.

With COVID-19 spreading across the nation and social distancing measures in full-force, many local hospitals are limiting visitations and human-to-human contact as much as possible. For individuals about to give birth, that means most family members, friends, doulas, and other supporters won’t be there for the duration of labor and won’t even be able to visit after.

That’s changing the way local doulas like Brittany Randolph work with their clients. Randolph is a certified doula and childbirth educator who works with The Sunshine Doula, and since local hospitals changed their visitation protocols, she’s moved to an entirely virtual model. 
HITCH A RIDE With COVID-19 spreading across the nation and social distancing measures in full-force, many local hospitals are limiting visitations and human-to-human contact as much as possible, and that includes childbirth. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • HITCH A RIDE With COVID-19 spreading across the nation and social distancing measures in full-force, many local hospitals are limiting visitations and human-to-human contact as much as possible, and that includes childbirth.

“That means that I don’t do any in-person anything anymore,” Randolph told New Times.

It’s been a tough change for her and her clients. She’s had three clients give birth since the coronavirus became a significant issue locally, and she wasn’t able to physically attend the births, where she usually coaches, advocates for the family’s rights, and provides massage therapy and general hand-holding and support.

“But a lot of what I do is education and encouragement and reminding and giving suggestions,” Randolph said. “And I still do 100 percent of that virtually. It’s just changed locations.”

With the technology that exists today, Randolph said it’s pretty easy to provide all the education and support that expecting families need. With all the confusion surrounding the possible impacts of the coronavirus on pregnant women and fetuses, and whether hospitals are safe for childbirth right now, Randolph said it’s more important than ever for expecting women and families to get educated about their rights and options.

In an open letter to the San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria communities, several licensed midwives addressed the complicated challenges that local families and health care organizations are facing in balancing an adequate COVID-19 response with the needs of pregnant women.

"As the COVID-19 pandemic has developed, our local hospitals have enacted policies and procedures in an effort to stem the transmission and exposure, both for health care providers and patients alike,” the letter reads. “Limiting visitors and labor support (doulas) professionals, in particular, has created stress and fear for pregnant women planning to birth in the hospital. We sympathize with this fear and understand the anxiety this creates for women and families in a vulnerable position. While we are supportive of our frontline health care providers in the hospital, we also understand the untenable predicament birthing families are facing.” 

Local childbirth experts have seen an increased interest in home births in the last several weeks, but while local midwives say they’ll do everything they can to support the community’s needs, they face barriers to doing so.

Midwives, according to the letter, aren’t considered by public health or state government to be frontline health care providers, and their lines of supply rely on the open market. They’ve been denied access to personal protective equipment, like facemasks, through their usual suppliers, who are prioritizing frontline health care workers. And on the Central Coast, licensed midwives attend less than 2 percent of the overall total of births, so most practices are small and individual.

“As a group, licensed midwives are here to support our community through this time in the ways we are able,” the letter reads. “We want the women of our community to know that we understand your anxieties and your fears, your grief of lost plans, and your desire to have a safe and peaceful birth.” ∆

Cuesta nursing students on track to graduate despite pandemic

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2020 at 7:08 PM

Second year students in Cuesta College’s registered nursing (RN) program are just nine days of clinical experience away from graduating. Director of Nursing Marcia Scott said she’s determined to get them there on schedule by May 22.

After COVID-19 initially shuttered their classrooms and kept them out of hospitals, Cuesta nursing students are now poised to rejoin the health care arena. When they return from their spring break on April 13, second year students will start shifts at local hospitals, while both first and second year students will help staff an overflow COVID-19 care site in the Cal Poly Rec Center.
JOINING THE FIGHT Cuesta College nursing students will help staff this alternative care hospital set up by San Luis Obispo County in the Cal Poly Rec Center. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • JOINING THE FIGHT Cuesta College nursing students will help staff this alternative care hospital set up by San Luis Obispo County in the Cal Poly Rec Center.

Both direct care experiences will count as credits toward their graduation, at a time when many nursing programs in the U.S. have been completely derailed by the coronavirus.

“We’re very determined,” Scott said. “We’re very fortunate to live in a supportive community where there might be some obstacles in our way but everybody’s willing to put our heads together and figure out how to find clinical placements for these nursing students.”

Cuesta nursing students will not be participating in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California Health Corps, a reserve force of health care workers created to help hospitals overburdened by COVID-19. Because Cuesta students still have the chance to complete their RN degrees on schedule, they’re coordinating their shifts through the college and local hospitals as usual, Scott said.

More than 100 students are currently enrolled in Cuesta’s RN and Licensed Vocational Nursing programs. About 40 are second year RNs who are gearing up to work in a traditional hospital setting next week.

“We’re going in gingerly at first because we need to see how the surge affects the hospitals,” Scott said.

When COVID-19 hit SLO County in early March, local hospitals stopped allowing Cuesta students to work in their facilities, in part due to concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“They didn’t know what the demand for the PPE was going to be,” Scott explained. “That was one of the critical reasons why hospitals didn’t want us in there.”

But with SLO County reporting only three hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of April 7, that decision was revisited. Still, Scott said the situation remains tenuous for her program.

“A lot of it depends,” she said. “So far we don’t have any real surge in patients, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak closed its campus, Cuesta’s nursing curriculum has moved online. Through Zoom, faculty and students have worked through various scenarios and case studies that they would normally see in a live hospital. Those case studies now include COVID-19 patients, and faculty have placed an extra emphasis on the proper use of PPE.

As the nursing program enters an uncertain few months, Scott said her students are generally feeling nervous but ready to get to work.

"They’re all scared, as every nurse is,” Scott said. “But I also feel that the majority of them feel a strong calling, that they got into nursing to care for people. They want to get out into the health care setting where they can help patients.” ∆

Monday, April 6, 2020

SLO retail shops look to phone and online sales to stay in business

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2020 at 5:48 PM

Local businesses that aren’t on the list of “essential” businesses allowed to remain open are finding ways to remain operational.
CONTINUING SALES Retail businesses fall under the limited services list which means they can still sell their products online and over the phone. - FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • CONTINUING SALES Retail businesses fall under the limited services list which means they can still sell their products online and over the phone.

According to the San Luis Obispo County website readyslo.org, retail stores are not on the list of essentials, but they are on the county’s list of businesses allowed to provide limited services. Although brick-and-mortar shops aren’t allowed to open to the public, they can sell their products online or via phone call orders, according to the county, which can then be picked up via curbside delivery or mailed to customers.

San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Jim Dantona told New Times that the chamber is working closely with the city of SLO, the Downtown SLO Association, and regional chambers to ensure that the entire community continues to prosper.

“We are taking this day-by-day just like everyone else, but are making sure we are getting the most credible, up-to-date information on financial and business resources out there for folks to access,” Dantona said.

He said if a business—essential or not—has questions, the city of SLO created an online form to streamline guidance and ensure that businesses are getting the right information the first time.

In an effort to continue supporting these small businesses, the chamber launched #SmallBusinessSaturday to encourage community members to shop with their favorite local business online, via social media, or over the phone. The chamber’s also calling on the community to leave a review of their preferred businesses or share a photo via social media of their local purchase. The community can also support a local business by buying a gift card for themselves or someone else for later use.

“So there’s a continuum, and right now, where we are in this continuum is OK, we want to have people not completely stop their income. The ones that are able to pivot and do online sales, good for them, we should support them,” Downtown SLO CEO Bettina Swigger said.

Swigger told New Times the current pandemic and its effect on all local businesses is accelerating the conversation about moving brick-and-mortar retail into a more “21st century business environment.” Many brick-and-mortar businesses are now turning to social media and their online websites, if they have one, to reach out to their customers and continue selling their products.

“I think a lot of people are actually doing a lot of shopping online locally, and that’s cool to see,” Swigger said. ∆
—Karen Garcia

Santa Maria Area Transit suspends fares, reduces route schedule

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2020 at 12:08 PM

Santa Maria Area Transit (SMAT) announced that as of April 1, and until further notice, fares for all SMAT services are suspended to encourage social distancing between transit drivers and their passengers.

“We do consider transit an essential service,” Transit Services Manager Austin O’Dell told the Sun. “We wanted to make sure that we’re providing a lifeline service and ridership.”
SERVICE ALERT Santa Maria and Lompoc city transit agencies are now offering shuttle service to make up for a loss in routes due to COVID-19 measures. Call (805) 928-5624 to schedule a SMAT shuttle. Call (805) 736-7666 to schedule a Lompoc dial-a-ride shuttle. - FILE PHOTO BY DAVID MINSKY
  • FILE PHOTO BY DAVID MINSKY
  • SERVICE ALERT Santa Maria and Lompoc city transit agencies are now offering shuttle service to make up for a loss in routes due to COVID-19 measures. Call (805) 928-5624 to schedule a SMAT shuttle. Call (805) 736-7666 to schedule a Lompoc dial-a-ride shuttle.


O’Dell said that passengers are being asked to enter at the back of the bus to avoid unnecessary contact with the driver. There are exceptions to this rule for people who are unable to enter this way.

“For those who are persons with disabilities or wheelchairs, who need a ramp, they can enter through the front and they will be secured in a wheelchair location just like any other time,” O’Dell said. “A person who needs priority seating at the front, they’d be able to be seated at the front of the bus.”

Because of the statewide stay-at-home order, O’Dell said SMAT has seen a decrease in ridership. As a result of that decrease, buses are now providing what would normally be weekend service for all days of the week, meaning the route schedule has been reduced. However, SMAT is providing a temporary shuttle service for those who need to travel outside of reduced service hours.

“You can call by appointment the day before and just say, ‘I need a shuttle,’” O’Dell said. “It’s bus stop to bus stop, as long as it’s between 5:30 to 8:30 in morning, and 6 to 9:30 in the evening.”

O’Dell also said that buses are thoroughly sanitized nightly and bus drivers are equipped with disinfectant to be used throughout the day on high touch areas.
While SMAT hasn’t faced an issue with driver shortages, O’Dell said that a few drivers who are part of vulnerable populations— such as those older than 65— are choosing to self isolate at home.

While SMAT only went as far as reducing route hours, City of Lompoc Transit (COLT) announced April 3 that “Local, fixed bus routes serving Lompoc, Vandenberg Village and Mission Hills will temporarily stop running effective Monday, April 13,” according to a press release. Instead, COLT will offer a dial-a-ride on-demand service by appointment only.

These new Lompoc services will continue to collect fares at the same rate as the usual fixed route services, and ride passes will still be accepted.

Additional changes include the Santa Barbara Shuttle—which normally runs once on Tuesdays and Thursdays—halting service beginning April 7. However, the Wine Country Express—a fixed route to Buellton—continues to operate on its normal schedule.

These changes come after multiple local organizations, including the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, called on Santa Maria City Council to suspend bus fares during the COVID-19 crisis. This demand was just one among many aimed at alleviating financial stress for Santa Maria residents affected by the repercussions of the virus. ∆
—Malea Martin

Friday, April 3, 2020

Cal Poly awarded $6.7 million for Technology Park expansion

Posted By on Fri, Apr 3, 2020 at 2:32 PM

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $6.7 million grant to the Cal Poly Corporation so it can expand on the existing Cal Poly Technology Park.

The grant, according to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, is expected to create 150 jobs and spur $20 million in private investment.
INNOVATION Cal Poly is planning to expand its Technology Park, which is designed to encourage and facilitate innovation in an interdisciplinary environment that brings together students, faculty, and business. - IMAGE COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • IMAGE COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • INNOVATION Cal Poly is planning to expand its Technology Park, which is designed to encourage and facilitate innovation in an interdisciplinary environment that brings together students, faculty, and business.
Cal Poly’s Technology Park is located on campus and is a hub for technology-based businesses, specifically firms engaged in applied research and development.

University spokesperson Matt Lazier said that, currently, nine companies employing more than 100 high-tech professionals occupy the park. More than 30 companies have resided in the Tech Park since 2010, employing or providing opportunities to more than 200 students.

“Many faculty members have engaged in sponsored research and development activities with companies in the Tech Park as well, and faculty startups have called the Tech Park home,” Lazier said.

Jim Dunning, Cal Poly’s associate vice president for corporation engagement and innovation, said that the effects of recent natural disasters demonstrated that SLO County’s economy wasn’t ready for destabilizing events. Mudslides caused by heavy winter rains shut down Highway 1 in 2017 and 2018, decreasing tourism along the coast. The Cal Poly Technology Park expansion project, Dunning said, will add balance to the county’s economic sectors by diversifying the region’s job base through the development of technology-focused jobs.

“The Technology Park will provide access to a well-educated and motivated workforce as well as a network of expert university faculty,” he said. “We are seeing high demand from industry for this type of engagement with our world-class faculty and students.”

Current park tenants include the Applied Biotechnology Institute (ABI), Applied Technologies Associates (ATA), California Strawberry Commission, Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub powered by Amazon Web Services, GE Digital, HealthcareIQ, H.T. Harvey Associates, Microcon, Securematics, SoCreate, and Software Inventions.

Tenants have opportunities to collaborate with Cal Poly faculty whose focus is on applied research. They also have access to qualified students, temporary workers, interns, and future employees.

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) said in a statement that he is thrilled that Cal Poly is receiving the grant to fund continued growth of the park.

“The technology park is a hub of innovation that brings together the expertise of faculty, students, and rising businesses, and it contributes to research and job opportunities in our region. Using this grant to expand the park will broaden opportunities for the Central Coast’s students, economy, and future,” Carbajal said. ∆

—Karen Garcia

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Amid first coronavirus-related death, Santa Barbara County prepares for economic recovery

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 6:45 PM

Public health officials announced the first coronavirus-related death in Santa Barbara County on April 1.

The individual was a North County resident in their 60s with underlying health conditions. Officials also confirmed 12 new cases in the county, bringing the grand total up to 111. Thirteen of those cases are currently hospitalized in intensive care.
RAMPING UP With local cases of COVID-19 increasing daily, Santa Barbara County launched web-based resources for businesses and workers to help get through the crisis. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • RAMPING UP With local cases of COVID-19 increasing daily, Santa Barbara County launched web-based resources for businesses and workers to help get through the crisis.

As new cases continue to increase, the county is taking measures to prepare for the looming economic impacts of this health crisis. One of those measures is a new webpage on the readysbc.org website devoted to COVID-19 economic recovery.

“Because the coronavirus continued to grow, we figured instead of keeping it solely on the public health side, we had to create that page for economic recovery so that it would provide information for business and the affected workers,” Alma Janabajab, a business services strategist with the county’s Workforce Development Board, told the Sun.

The web page includes resources and links for both businesses and individuals. An “immediate steps to take” link directs business owners to a step-by-step guide on contacting their insurance provider, tracking losses, and other business support. A “businesses hiring now” link includes names of businesses that are currently accepting applications and details about the type of work. Other resources include extensive information on how to apply for unemployment insurance or a business disruption loan and a constantly updated list of emergency declarations and orders.

Janabajab said that the county is currently working to translate business and worker resource guides into Spanish to make these resources accessible to as much of the community as possible. During an April 1 virtual press conference, Public Health Department Director Dr. Van Do Reynoso said that the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department is also taking active steps toward Spanish translation and language accessibility.

“Our website, publichealthsbc.org, is fully translated in Spanish and in addition we have our frequently asked questions,” Reynoso said. “We’re one of the first few counties to be able to have that up in Spanish. We’re also creating videos that will be bilingual as well as bicultural to disseminate. We are partnering up with UCSB and a variety of community organizations to disseminate that information as well.”

Gregg Hart, 2nd District Supervisor, also mentioned during the press conference that all virtual press conferences are translated into Spanish. These translations air on the county’s CSBTV Live Youtube channel after the live press conference ends. ∆

—Malea Martin

SLO County to waive penalties for late April property taxes

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 3:18 PM

Local property owners worried about being able to pay their property taxes on time this month can breath a sigh of relief.

The San Luis Obispo County Tax Collector Division is waiving late fees on property taxes paid after the April 10 delinquency deadline in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We recognize many taxpayers are facing difficulties with the upcoming April 10 property tax deadline,” SLO County Tax Collector Jim Hamilton said in a March 30 press release. “Taxpayers able to pay their April installment on time should continue to do so, but this program allows more time for those who have been impacted by COVID-19.”

EXTENSION Local property owners can delay their April property tax payments, per a new waiver program enacted by the SLO County Tax Collector Division. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • EXTENSION Local property owners can delay their April property tax payments, per a new waiver program enacted by the SLO County Tax Collector Division.


The waiver form, which is on the SLO County tax collector website, is available for primary residences and properties associated with a small business, defined as a business with an annual revenue of less than $7.5 million (including vacation rental properties).


Instead of receiving a 10 percent fee for missing the deadline, those property owners can submit the waiver form alongside their late payment and face no penalties.


“Taxpayers who want to submit a waiver request should do so at the same time they are ready to make their tax payment,” Hamilton’s press release reads.

There’s no deadline associated with the waiver form.

The Tax Collector Division has also extended the deadline to pay transient occupancy taxes collected in February and March in the unincorporated county. Usually owed at the end of every month, those February and March taxes can be paid before Aug. 31 and still avoid penalty.

Grover Beach waives penalties for late utility and hotel fees

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 9:01 AM

The city of Grover Beach is following the lead of other SLO County cities and offering a little financial relief to some businesses and residents that might be struggling to make ends meet amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At a special meeting on March 30, the Grover Beach City Council unanimously voted to suspend service disconnections and waive penalties and interest fees associated with late water and sewer utility payments made from February through May. The urgency ordinance does the same for businesses that make late transient occupancy tax payments, taxes charged to tourists renting rooms in hotels, inns, and other lodging facilities in town. Both payments do, however, need to be settled up with the city by Aug. 31.
A LITTLE RELIEF With areas like the Oceano Dunes Vehicle Recreation Area closed due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the tourism Grover Beach depends on for revenue is all but gone, so the City Council recently voted to waive penalties and interest fees for late utility and tax payments. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • A LITTLE RELIEF With areas like the Oceano Dunes Vehicle Recreation Area closed due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the tourism Grover Beach depends on for revenue is all but gone, so the City Council recently voted to waive penalties and interest fees for late utility and tax payments.

“Tourism has essentially dried up,” Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson said at the meeting, “given the shelter-at-home orders.”

Bronson said Grover Beach isn’t facing the kind of revenue losses in transient occupancy taxes that more hotel-dependent towns are, and since the taxes will eventually be paid, the city won’t lose any significant revenue by waiving late fees and interest. The city does expect to lose more than $20,000 in revenue by waiving penalties associated with late water and sewer bills, but Bronson said that amount can be absorbed into the budget.

“We believe this is a prudent and empathetic step to offer some relief to our customers during these next few months,” he said.

Grover Beach Mayor Jeff Lee agrees.

Although Grover Beach isn’t as reliant on hotels and their guests as some other SLO County towns, Lee said it does lean on tourists for revenue, especially those visiting the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. With that closed down, Lee said a lot of residents—those working in the food service industry, in retail, and at ATV rental businesses—are suffering.

“We as a city are concerned about our residents and our businesses,” Lee told New Times, “and how they’re being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic." ∆

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Los Flores Ranch expands hours, despite park closures elsewhere

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 4:55 PM

For many restless Californians living under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, the only chance to leave the house is to grab groceries or escape to a park. But this influx of outdoor adventurers is making it harder for people to abide by the social distancing guidelines that are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

This increase in park attendance led to beach and trail closures in Los Angeles County. On the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo County closed a regional park and campgrounds, as well as parking lots for all coastal county parks. Meanwhile, California State Parks announced on March 29 that vehicle access is now prohibited at all 280 state parks, including at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
STILL OPEN Amid increased visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, some parks remain open while others throughout the state have closed. - FILE PHOTO BY ZAC EZZONE
  • FILE PHOTO BY ZAC EZZONE
  • STILL OPEN Amid increased visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, some parks remain open while others throughout the state have closed.
“On [March 28], many state parks once again experienced visitation surges that made it impossible for the public to implement appropriate social/physical distancing practices,” the announcement from California State Parks states.

But rather than close its parks, the city of Santa Maria is trying to expand the number of people its largest park can accommodate. On March 31, the city announced it’s temporarily waiving the entrance fee for Los Flores Ranch Park, and extending the days it’s open. Under these new hours, the park will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

“This is in an effort to meet the community’s increased need for access to local open space, trails, and parks,” the city’s announcement states.

For Santa Barbara County, it’s not quite business as usual, but it’s close. County Parks Superintendent Jeff Lindgren said the campgrounds at Cachuma Lake and Jalama Beach are closed, as well as all playground equipment, but that all parks remain open for daily use.

“At this point we are not planning on closing, and we hope that everyone will enjoy the parks, get outside, but continue to practice all the guidelines that have been laid out for all of us,” Lindgren said.

So far, he said, his department has been pleasantly surprised by how well most people are abiding by social distancing guidelines and staying at least 6 feet away from other people, despite increases in visitors at most parks. Staff members in his department have posted guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at facilities and are actively encouraging visitors to listen to these measures.

Lindgren acknowledged these guidelines are harder to follow on narrow trails, but said hikers could pull over to the side of a path and make space for other people to pass. He suggested hikers could also announce their presence when coming up on a hill or rounding a blind turn, so they don’t run into other people.

Although they’re open now, as the pandemic rolls on, if people stop following social distancing guidelines, the county could consider closing its parks. Which, Lindgren said, would only cause more frustration at an already stressful time.

“We can close a gate, but that doesn’t stop you from going [on a trail],” Lindgren said. “So if we get to that point, we would create a lot of frustration. As long as people are abiding by the guidelines, we don’t need to take those sorts of measures at this time.” ∆

—Zac Ezzone

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