When Isla Vista reported its first COVID-19 case on March 30, it remained the only confirmed case for over the next two months. As students returned to town for summer sessions and the start of fall quarter, however, that number began to balloon.
On June 22, the first day of summer sessions, there were 7 confirmed COVID-19 cases in I.V. By Oct. 1, the first day of fall quarter, there were 239. Now, there are nearly 400 cases — more than those in the City of Goleta, the community of Orcutt and the Santa Ynez Valley, according to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (SBCPHD) website.
As COVID-19 numbers began to climb in the community, the Nexus reported on numerous parties and large gatherings in August and October that drew hundreds of maskless people to the streets. By the end of October, UC Santa Barbara had reported at least five COVID-19 outbreaks in Greek life housing and announced that about 100 UCSB students in I.V. currently have the virus, according to KCSB reporting.
Previously one of the most dormant areas in the county for COVID-19, I.V. has now become one of the most active, dominating the county in terms of the number of active cases and impacting its prospects of entering the next reopening phase. It has drawn the response of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, which passed an ordinance on Oct. 20 to begin enforcing county public health orders in unincorporated areas of the county — including I.V. — through a system of fines.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, Nexus reporters spoke with passersby and partygoers on Del Playa Drive from 10 p.m. to midnight, fielding their thoughts on COVID-19, parties in I.V. and the government’s response to the pandemic in hopes of answering the question: Why are people partying during the pandemic?
Though large, maskless groups meandered through Del Playa Drive and parties continued to fill front lawns, the night was noticeably quieter than evenings recorded previously by the Nexus, drawing about 200 people in the span of two hours.
A majority of those who spoke with the Nexus did so under the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns, but some were willing to share where they were from and their respective school affiliations.
“Honestly, if I get COVID now, I don’t really care,” said a student and baseball player for Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), who asked to remain anonymous, citing safety concerns. He said he does not have to get tested for COVID-19 for another three weeks, citing it as “the reason I’m [out] here.”
But he said he still avoids larger gatherings, adding, “I think if you’re hanging out with one or two people, it looks fine, but when it’s 30, 40 people, it gets a little weird.”
According to Health Officer Order No. 2020-12.12 from the SBCPHD, “all gatherings, whether large or small, are prohibited unless exempt.” Exemptions include businesses, outdoor recreation activities and congregate living facilities, according to the health order.
Zaina Al-Hinn, a third-year UC Santa Barbara student, said she also feels the same when it comes to large gatherings.
“We’re out on the streets but we still keep a small circle,” she said while on her way with a group of friends to a gathering of “no more than 10 people.”
Al-Hinn and her friends said they take COVID-19 seriously and do not support large gatherings, but find that COVID-19 “isn’t as concerning” in a younger town like I.V., where the median age is 20.6.
The 18 to 29-year-old age group currently accounts for the highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases in the county and the second highest number of total cases, according to the SBCPHD website.
“It’s a real thing. However, in this town, it’s a lot less looked [down] upon due to the circumstances, due to the fact that a lot of people that live here are of a lower age rather than people of a higher age who are getting a lot more infected,” Al-Hinn said, adding that she isn’t as concerned about spreading the virus in I.V. as she is at home.
“It is a risk, but it’s not as high as it is for people that are at a higher age, just due to the scientific facts about what COVID does,” she continued.
In September, a research paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 21% of 3,222 18 to 34-year-olds discharged from the hospital between April 1 and June 30 for COVID-19 required intensive care during their stay. Another 10% of 18 to 34-year-old patients required mechanical ventilation, and nearly 3% died, according to the research paper.
One of Al-Hinn’s friends, a third-year UCSB student who chose to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said she previously tested positive for COVID-19 in her hometown of San Diego, and that “a bunch” of her friends in I.V. have already had the virus. Though Al-Hinn’s friend said she was largely asymptomatic — losing only her sense of smell — Al-Hinn said she knows people who contracted COVID-19 and faced “severe symptoms.”
Beyond discussing large gatherings, some on Del Playa Drive argued that the federal government handled the virus poorly in its early stages and allowed it to spread throughout the country much faster than in other parts of the world.
“I’m just saying, if the president would have said to wear masks sooner, I feel like a ton of this could have been avoided,” said a partygoer, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. “I’ve seen videos where people are literally like, ‘Trump doesn’t wear a mask, so I don’t have to.’”
Universal mask use is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition to the federal government, others thought that local governments should be doing more for their communities.
“A lot of people blame the president, but it’s not the president’s problem,” a UC Los Angeles alumnus said, adding that he was in town just for the weekend. He asked to be referred to only by his school affiliations, citing safety concerns. “It’s more of a local politician’s problem.”
“I’m from LA, so [local government] should have given us a heads up. While half of Europe is under lockdown in February, our time came in March. So they had like one month in advance,” the former UCLA student continued. “We shouldn’t have waited until the last second.”
Some said that because of I.V.’s young demographic, COVID-19 doesn’t feel like a serious health threat.
“I mean, obviously I think the pandemic is a huge deal. We want to save lives — of course — which makes total sense. But in a town like this, it’s so hard to remember that there is a pandemic going on because the population of Isla Vista is literally like 25-year-olds and under, you know?” said a partygoer, who wished to remain anonymous because of safety concerns.
“We literally never show any symptoms,” the partygoer continued, “so it’s hard for us to know when we have it.”
The SBCPHD recently added more COVID-19 testing appointments at I.V. Theater, while continuing to provide other free testing options to community members at the Goleta Valley Community Center. Just recently, UC Santa Barbara announced that it would be hosting a free, on-campus COVID-19 testing clinic from Oct. 27 to Oct. 30 for all asymptomatic students. UCSB students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms should instead make an appointment directly with Student Health.
As passersby shared their thoughts on COVID-19 with the Nexus throughout the night, a spectrum emerged: Some felt that gatherings should be kept to no more than a handful, while others had no fears about large crowds — or not wearing a mask.
“Let’s say I get the coronavirus. I have a 99.7% chance of surviving it,” said a first-year SBCC student who wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. “I think it’s one of those sicknesses where I can not wear a mask and go out and be OK with it, because the flu takes as many deaths as the coronavirus has.”
Although there is no singular COVID-19 mortality rate, the number of deaths per 100 confirmed cases in the U.S. is 2.6, or a survival rate of about 97.4%, according to Johns Hopkins University. Additionally, the latest estimates suggest that COVID-19 may be 50 to 100 times deadlier than the seasonal flu, according to National Geographic.
The SBCC student said he felt there was no need “to be in a lockdown” as a result of the virus and maintained that “kids are still gonna want to go out” because “they know that the virus isn’t that big of a deal.”
“I mean, you don’t see anyone around here wearing masks, right?” he asked.