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Santa Maria to draft plan for reopening city amid confusion from state, county
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Santa Maria to draft plan for reopening city amid confusion from state, county

The city of Santa Maria has initiated planning for the gradual reopening of local businesses and services in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, gathering a focus group of community leaders who will draft specific strategies while also considering state and county guidelines.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom released a six-point plan for lifting the stay-at-home order in California last week, both Santa Barbara County and the city have struggled to determine how the vague guidelines can be molded to fit the specific needs of communities, as well as what businesses qualify as essential to reopen. 

The city's focus group will involve Mayor Alice Patino and leaders from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, Marian Regional Medical Center, the fire department, and other city sectors to determine a plan that meets the needs of the community, with more specifics to be presented at the May 5 City Council meeting. 

According to Chamber of Commerce CEO Glenn Morris, the plan will involve six phases for local businesses: the current stage of providing relief, followed by reopening, recovering, reinvention to adjust to necessary safety guidelines, and finally, resilience to establish long-term strategies for strengthening the economy. 

"We are working on a number of different fronts, and partnering with local teams as well as regional partners to identify strategies that will help not only in the immediate opening [of businesses], but also in longer-phase recovery that our businesses will need to go through," Morris said. 

He added that it will be important for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties to collaborate on their reopening plans because many local businesses cross county lines. 

"We recognize that many of our businesses operate in both of those jurisdictions, and what we really need right now at this point is consistency and clarity, and not have to try to figure out which set of rules apply to which jurisdiction," Morris said. 

San Luis Obispo County, however, is aiming to reopen businesses in the near future, citing continued low case numbers and substantial preparation among various sectors to move forward. 

When asked by Patino why city officials were unable to establish a list of essential services at this time, City Attorney Thomas Watson said officials will need to interpret state guidelines as broadly as possible to keep people working. 

"I dont think there's a hard and fast list [of essential services.] There was an overarching review of essential items from the governor's office based on a very different perspective of what is important than a community such as ours," Watson said. 

Also citing a lack of specific state guidance, county officials Tuesday presented a rough timeline of four to six weeks for reopening certain essential services related to agriculture, tourism, certain athletic activities, barbershops, nail salons, massage therapy and religious services.

Watson said Santa Maria will need to move forward on its own to decide on essential services rather than waiting for further direction from higher jurisdictions. 

"By the time [the essential services list] comes out, we will be in the recovery phase. I have several drafts of it, and we were endeavoring  to be very specific for our businesses. The Santa Maria way is to lead the county, not wait for Santa Barbara to provide us with information," Watson said. 

Ultimately, Morris said, this plan will build a framework for reopening rather than determining an official time frame, which will need to be decided by the county and the state. 

"We are not focused so much on the 'when' of reopening ... what we’re focusing on is being prepared so that whenever the governor's office and county Public Health say it's safe to open some or all of our businesses, we are prepared to help them through that process," Morris said. 

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories. Do you have a question about coronavirus in Santa Barbara County? The Santa Maria Times news staff will work to answer your questions. Post them to our Facebook page, or email MCooley@SantaMariaTimes.com.  You can support the work of local journalists working hard in your hometown by signing up for a News+ Membership online

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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