As Santa Barbara County began implementing a countywide indoor mask mandate on Friday, public health officials are encouraging local jurisdictions to do their part to help slow the current COVID-19 surge.
A health officer order outlining the mandate states that all Santa Barbara County residents age 2 and over now will be required to mask up in public indoor locations.
"[This] is a legal health officer order, and we are imploring local municipalities to take leadership in urging businesses to comply. It is about the case rate. It is about the number of residents entering hospitals. It’s about saving lives of our community members," county Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso pleaded Thursday.
Officials have maintained that masking is the most effective way to curb the spread of COVID-19, especially considering the highly transmissible nature of the delta variant.
According to county Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg, the delta variant has a shorter incubation period than the previous version of COVID, meaning it can be spread and cause symptoms more quickly, and replicates much faster.
"All of these new features enable the delta variant to be almost as contagious as chickenpox," Ansorg said. "Unfortunately, delta is now able to infect even vaccinated persons, who are able to spread it even further. Vaccinated persons are fortunately very well protected from severe illness and death, so please don't get me wrong, the vaccine is absolutely worth it."
As of Friday, the case rate in the county was 12.2 per 100,000 people, which would have placed the county deep into the most-restrictive purple tier in the now-retired tier system.
Among unvaccinated individuals, the rate is much higher at 19.1. While it is lower among vaccinated residents at 5.6, officials say it is still a cause for concern.
"This really paints a picture of why we have issued our health officer order," Do-Reynoso said.
Officials said that although they have been planning to implement the order ever since the case rate per 1000,000 people rose to 10, they waited until Friday in order to notify local jurisdictions and businesses and give them time to prepare.
While the order states that failure to comply may result in a misdemeanor charge constituting a $1,000 fine or imprisonment, Santa Maria City Attorney Thomas Watson said his Code Enforcement Department will maintain the education-focused approach used under other COVID-related mandates.
"We want our community to be safe, so we are going to do what we can to help," Watson said. "We do quite a bit of outreach in the community."
When complaints have been filed about businesses not following masking or other guidelines, Watson said it usually ends up being traced back to one employee rather than the managerial level, and they can advise the manager to bring their employees in line.
However, when individual residents do not comply with mask mandates, that may be something that is handled by police or other law enforcement rather than the code office, he said.
"Code enforcement handles property, and the police department does the interpersonal stuff. That isn’t something that would be sent to the code division. If you have conduct that is disruptive, there are other rules outside Public Health that apply there," Watson said.
The Aug. 6 health officer order is available online at publichealthsbc.org/health-officer-orders.
Santa Barbara County residents age 12 and older are encouraged to get the COVID-19 vaccine if they have not already. The vaccine is free and available to residents regardless of documentation status.