Montecito Journal Hosts Zoom Call with Local Politicians and Business Owners
Last Friday morning, around 100 people joined a Zoom conference call hosted by Montecito Journal Editor-in-Chief Gwyn Lurie and Publisher Tim Buckley. The goal of the call was to generate ideas that could help businesses bounce back from the loss of revenue stemming from social-distancing restrictions that were set in place by California a month ago. The call lasted for roughly two hours and amounted to both a call to action and a brainstorming session where both politicians and community leaders were able to talk together about how to both survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lurie started off the meeting by welcoming everyone to the call. “I didn’t imagine meeting everyone this way,” she joked, before thanking everyone for participating and quickly getting to the point of the call. “The more we share ideas for businesses to survive this time, the better off we will be as a community.”
One of the first people to address the group was Congressman Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara). “We all need to work together,” Carbajal said. “The response by the government has not been perfect and we can always do better.” Carbajal said that while the federal government had approved an $8.3 billion aid package via the Coronavirus Response Act, not all of the cash has reached local communities. “The first thing we need to do is fix those issues that have prevented aid from going out to businesses,” he said. “This is not just a government challenge, it’s a challenge that crosses all sectors including the private sector.”
Carbajal said he had confidence that the feds will follow through with another aid package that will provide loans so local government agencies can acquire personal protective equipment or PPEs for their front-line workers as well as Economic Injury Disaster (EIDL) Loans via the Small Business Administration specifically geared at helping local businesses. “This is not the time to play politics,” concluded Carbajal, “but a time to come together as a nation.”
First District Supervisor Das Williams, who was juggling his children in self-isolation at home, spoke next. “I’m here more to listen than to talk,” he said. “I am very concerned about the economic fallout to you as small business owners and to your employees.” Although Williams said he was optimistic that California and Santa Barbara County in particular would be able to start rolling back some of the social-distancing restrictions soon, he said that it is still too early to know when that could happen. “One thing that is clear is that we need more testing supplies,” he said. “Re-opening is dependent on enhanced testing.”
Unfortunately, it remains unclear how quickly Santa Barbara residents will be able to count on tests being made available to the general population, without which there is no way officials can reliably say how many people are infected with the virus. Until that happens, how can businesses assure their customers that they are safe to be open? On that note, Lurie suggested the possibility that the county could provide a coronavirus certification or ranking system much like how some counties rank restaurants with letter grades based on their compliance with health codes.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Williams responded. “That way restaurants can say that Public Health has been by to certify them.” But Williams said he wasn’t sure a ranking system was a good idea because many residents are already scared that the social-distancing measures in place represent a massive power grab by local government. “In reality, our power is very limited at the local level,” he argued. “We have a lot more flexibility at the county level with land use rather than health codes, which are controlled by the state.”
Next to speak was Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez, who asserted that the city has shown in the past how resilient it can be. “We can grow in this experience,” she said, “and have shown that before.” Mayor Cathy Murillo followed up Gutierrez by saying that her office is putting together a task force to try to help the community through the crisis. “We need to focus on survival, then recovery,” she said. “Homeless and gang activity is a real problem right now, and revenues at the city will be hard hit. We are looking at Coast Village Road,” she added, with a nod to Montecito, “because it’s in our jurisdiction, but we don’t mind helping anybody.”
After the politicians weighed in, Lurie opened up the conference call to business owners interested in brainstorming solutions to the ongoing economic slump. “Is there a way Salud or Das can provide support for people impacted by the Thomas Fire and debris flow and are just now recovering?” asked Leslie Person Ryan, owner of Letter Perfect. Carbajal answered that only the Small Business Association (SBA) could answer that question. “It’s going to come down to the agency saying, ‘Show us what prior support there was and then what additional injury occurred,’” he said, offering to take up the query with the SBA. “I will brainstorm and see if there is any way we can do this. My office will do that. We will take it up the flagpole and see what we can do.”
Other ideas that came up included the concept of restaurants offering exclusive dine-in service to a customer willing to pay for the luxury, while the restaurant’s kitchen could simultaneously cook up food for delivery, as well as arranging for “cash mobs” to throw support – either in the form of to-go orders or gift certificates – to a rotating list of businesses. “We are creating a master list of businesses as a resource for people,” said Journal Publisher Buckley, who added that if local residents don’t support their neighborhood small businesses, Montecito’s semi-rural, small town lifestyle would be jeopardized. “If businesses fail, bigger chains will move in,” he said. “Maybe we can pull on people’s heartstrings to prevent that from happening.”
Bob Ludwick, president of the Coast Village Association, agreed with Buckley and Lurie about the need for a smaller group of business owners and journalists to convene with the mission of coming up with an action plan to save Montecito’s retail economy. “This is a unique time,” he argued, adding that both Montecito’s lower and upper villages needed to work together as one. “It’s something of a sacrilege to say this because normally there is a friendly rivalry, but this transcends that. This is one village.”