After a few weeks of not quite normal operations, many businesses in the county shut down for a second time

Amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently required many businesses in Santa Barbara County to fully or partially close, a few weeks after many reopened from the previous closure.

click to enlarge After a few weeks of not quite normal operations, many businesses in the county shut down for a second time
UNCERTAINTY : After being open again for only a couple of weeks, Riverbench Winery was forced to close its Santa Barbara tasting room and only serve customers outside at its Santa Maria Valley winery due to an increase in local COVID-19 cases and new public health orders.

During a press conference on July 1, Newsom announced a health order that mandates certain businesses in counties on a state COVID-19 watch list—including Santa Barbara County—to halt all indoor operations. This includes restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, museums, cardrooms, and family entertainment centers.

“California is seeing the virus spreading at alarming rates in many parts of the state, and we are taking immediate action to slow the spread of the virus in those areas,” Newsom said in a press release announcing the closures.

For Riverbench Vineyard and Winery CEO Laura Booras, the announcement came as a shock. Booras told the Sun that had spoken with county Public Health Department officials after Newsom recommended the county close its bars on June 28—which the county did the following day—who reassured her that the governor’s recommendation didn’t include wineries and tasting rooms at that time. 

Aside from being caught off guard by the July 1 announcement, Booras said she has mixed feelings about closing again.

“As cases rise, the safety of my employees is more and more of a concern,” Booras said. “But of course my gut reaction was just that I’m devastated. We all are. The first closure was bad … and it feels like the second shutdown is worse, to be honest.”

Booras said Riverbench’s winery in Santa Maria and tasting room in Santa Barbara both opened on June 18 after closing in March. During the two weeks between their opening and the governor’s re-closure, they operated at about 30 percent to 60 percent capacity. 

This was partially a deliberate decision, she said, so that staff members could get used to the crowds and adapt to new cleaning requirements, among other changes. But with the governor’s new order in place, business will be reduced dramatically. 

The outdoor seating at the winery in Santa Maria remains open to guests, but capacity is limited due to social distancing. On the other hand, the tasting room in Santa Barbara is indoor-only and therefore is completely closed—with the exception of bottle pickup a few days a week. 

The county and local cities have loosened zoning regulations to allow businesses to expand outdoor seating into parking lots and sidewalks, which Booras said she’d look into for the tasting room in Santa Barbara. But at most this would accommodate eight or so customers, and it would require Booras to dedicate an employee to the parking lot, which means more payroll costs. 

So far Booras said she’s been able to keep all full-time employees on staff, and she’s hoping it stays that way. But she’s worried about this more recent closure and how long it could last. The governor said it’ll be in effect for three weeks, but if case numbers don’t improve, it could be extended. 

“After three and a half months of this, it’s exhausting, my head is spinning,” Booras said. “I’m really caught between wanting my staff to be really safe and being able to keep them employed and this business afloat.”

Kurt Hixenbaugh, owner of Vino et Amicis in Orcutt, said the uncertainty is terrible. Hixenbaugh initially closed his wine bar in mid-March and then reopened in late May by finding ways to offer food. But after remaining open throughout all of June, the bar is now closed again after the county’s June 29 decision to follow Newsom’s recommendation that the county close its bars.

Hixenbaugh said this most recent closure is even more difficult than the first, during which he was able to sell wine to-go or through delivery. These options didn’t bring in a lot of cash, but it helped the business stay afloat while the doors weren’t open. This time around, neither of these options are permitted, which he said is frustrating because restaurants and other similar businesses are allowed to do both. 

Without any way to bring in revenue, Hixenbaugh said he’s just going to try to ride out the next few weeks and hope the order isn’t extended.

“[The closure] doesn’t affect big corporations; these wine bars and breweries, most are mom-and-pop operations,” Hixenbaugh said. “It’s what we do. It’s our passion, it’s our income, it’s our well-being.”

During his press conference on July 1, Newsom said the state decided to mandate these closures for counties on the state’s watch list, which consists of 19 counties that are failing to meet specific metrics aimed at measuring the spread of the virus, not just because of an increase in cases, but a rise in the state’s positivity rate.

Increases in this rate, which is based on the percentage of people who test positive out of everybody who is tested, means the virus is spreading faster. Newsom said that for weeks, the state’s positivity rate remained close to 4.4 percent, but it increased to a seven-day average of about 6.4 percent by the day of this press conference. As of July 2, this number was about 8.5 percent in the county. 

The number of people hospitalized by the virus is also increasing in the state and county, although both still have the capacity to handle more cases. As of July 2, 64 county residents were in the hospital, which is twice as many people as there were at the beginning of June. The county has 699 treatment beds dedicated to handling a surge in the virus. 

To maintain this capacity, 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart pleaded with residents during a press conference on July 2 to recommit to washing their hands, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded areas. If these numbers don’t improve, additional closures could be on their way, county Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said during the conference.

“Please consider this, if we cannot impact the path of disease through taking very simple action as individuals, we will have a difficult future,” Do-Reynoso said. “Broad actions that impact many will need to be taken.” 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at [email protected].

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