Downtown Santa Ynez

Businesses in unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County, like those in Santa Ynez, could face citations that come with fines for violating reopening guidelines for business like failing to limit the number of customers allowed inside or failing to enforce protective measures like masks and social distancing. 

An ordinance that would allow certain Santa Barbara County personnel to issue citations leading to fines for violating county health officer orders was approved on first reading Tuesday in a split vote by the Board of Supervisors.

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino dissented in the 3-2 vote to introduce the ordinance that’s scheduled to return to the board for final adoption Nov. 10.

If adopted, the ordinance would apply only to unincorporated areas, become effective in 30 days and remain in effect until the local pandemic emergency declaration is terminated or the ordinance is rescinded by the board.

County staff said the ordinance will provide staff with a tool that lies between education and law enforcement actions.

Currently, the county has the options of educating those failing to comply with health officer orders, taking such civil action as seeking an injunction and imposing fiscal penalties through the District Attorney’s Office or having law enforcement issue misdemeanor citations that can result in a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

“It is very clear as this pandemic continues to unfold, some middle ground is needed,” said Barney Melekian, assistant county executive officer.

The proposed administrative citations could result in a license revocation or fines of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense within one year and $500 for a third and additional offenses within a year, although the ordinance notes that every day a violation continues will constitute an additional offense.

Kelly Hubbard, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said citations wouldn’t be written for individuals walking down the street without wearing masks or families sitting at the beach or in a park not wearing masks.

But citations could be written for parties that exceed the number of allowed individuals or families and for large gatherings that are prohibited at parks and beaches.

Businesses that fail to follow reopening guidelines by not limiting customer capacity or enforcing protective measures also could be subject to the fines.

The ability to write citations for administrative fines would fall to those who already have enforcement powers, including environmental health inspectors, agricultural inspectors, animal control officers, park rangers and sheriff’s deputies.

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Of 11 members of the public who spoke, eight people — most of them UCSB students — supported the ordinance, while two small-business owners opposed it, including Mary Spallino, owner of Trattoria Uliveto in Orcutt.

“Is this how we want to treat our taxpaying businesses?” Spallino asked, adding that her business has “already been ‘fined’ by COVID-19.”

Adam said the county should reject “draconian regulations,” open up society for those not at grave risk of death, protect vulnerable populations and stop treating the disease as if everyone who contracts it has an equal chance of dying.

“Today, we consider instituting fines for a person’s daring to violate what I and many in our community consider to be unreasonable, unwarranted and unconstitutional infringements of our right of peaceable assembly, freedom to travel, freedom to engage in commerce and freedom to worship as we choose — these all in the name of preventing the spread of a disease we have learned since March is about as fatal as the normal flu,” Adam said.

“COVID-19 has become a pretext for the government health-care complex to institute a command and control scheme on the people of Santa Barbara County and elsewhere,” he said.

Lavagnino said he takes COVID-19 very seriously, noting it has hit his family and his staff, but he pointed out the county currently only has 12 people hospitalized by the disease.

“We have to kind of let people get back to reality a little bit,” Lavagnino said. “I think this is a well-intentioned ordinance, but eventually there’s going to be a problem down the road.”

First District Supervisor Das Williams said he agreed with much of Adam’s philosophy but said it’s imperative for the county to move into the next tier of reopening and “allow people to proceed with their life.”

“Whether we agree with the state framework [for safe reopening] or are against it, that is the reality,” Williams said. “This, to me, will give folks who use their discretion in enforcement the ability to make sure that our future is not held hostage by a few irresponsible or unthinking individuals who could spread the disease and hold the rest of us back from living our life.”

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said the ordinance will serve as a deterrent, much like the fear of getting a ticket keeps her from speeding.

“The majority are doing really well, but what do we do with the outliers?” she said.