This May, vaccination numbers have continued to go up, the county and university are easing COVID-19 restrictions and some aspects of Isla Vista and UC Santa Barbara are slowly resembling their pre-pandemic state.
But back in March 2020, any hope of a return to normal life was far away. The following timeline is a compilation of how I.V. and UCSB weathered a year and two months through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winter Quarter 2020: No Cases in I.V.
When the UCs and colleges across the country temporarily shut their doors in mid-March due to the pandemic, UC Santa Barbara students faced their new educational reality: remote learning.
As UCSB began its transition to an alternative format of instruction, there wasn’t a single case of COVID-19 in Santa Barbara County.
Student activities and gatherings in Isla Vista quickly followed suit, changing or canceling their plans and operations. Like dominos, the campus and the community began closing, changing and canceling in-person events. Associated Students altered its in-person operations, study abroad programs were suspended and the Isla Vista Community Services District (I.V. CSD) canceled a plan for an alternative Deltopia event.
Then came the March 14 announcement from university that Spring Quarter 2020 would also be remote — contradicting previous announcements that COVID-19 would only shut the university down for a few weeks. All these changes came within a week of each other and still, the county had no cases of COVID-19.
March 15, Santa Barbara County had its first case of COVID-19 in North County — still relatively far from the South County college town. Isla Vista stayed cloistered from the virus that was still changing how residents in the small but crowded town lived their lives.
But the virus inched closer and closer, and by March 19, South County had four cases, with Isla Vista’s case number still at zero.
At this point, every new case in the county was news, and the Nexus reported every new increase — whether that be four new cases or five.
But the virus was already devastating in other urban parts of the state like the Bay Area and Los Angeles. On March 19, Governor Gavin Newsom placed a stay-at-home order for all California residents, and the following day he ordered restaurants to halt dine-in operations and only provide take-out and delivery services — causing local businesses to suffer. Sam’s To Go, Freebirds, S.O.S. Liquor, Spudnuts Donuts and many more saw a significant decrease in their traffic and, subsequently, faced financial losses.
March 25, there were 24 cases in Santa Barbara County — still none in I.V.
As COVID-19 emerged globally between December 2019 and March 2020, Isla Vista stayed cloistered — until March 30, 2020.
Spring Quarter 2020: Temporary Remote Learning Becomes Permanent
The first case of COVID-19 in I.V. occurred on March 30, while the county’s case count was at 88.
On April 5, Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Henning Ansorg announced a “Stay Well at Home Order” for the county after residents weren’t complying with Newsom’s stay-at-home order, with at least 64 reports of statewide violations as of March 30.
That weekend, Deltopia — the annual, unsanctioned street party that invites partiers and police from out of town — saw less than 30 participants, with many students already out of town or following stay-at-home guidelines.
Early in the quarter, students began questioning why they were paying the same tuition as they were pre-pandemic, considering that their education was primarily online and many campus services were no longer available to them. However, the UC Office of the President, along with individual chancellors, announced they had no plans to adjust tuition. Despite a lack of flexibility tuition-wise from the UC system, A.S. began allocating money to student relief groups, with the aim of providing financial relief to students affected by COVID-19, and the Isla Vista Tenants Union raised funds to provide limited funding toward rent relief for students.
By May 10, Isla Vista still only had one positive case. Though other parts of the county were seeing rising numbers, Isla Vista stayed stagnant.
During this time, local food-based organizations Food Not Bombs, the Isla Vista Food Co-op, the A.S. Food Bank and Manos de Mapaches served vulnerable populations by providing free meals or grocery pick-up programs. I.V. CSD joined the local food-based organizations in serving vulnerable populations by distributing meals and providing first-aid kits to houseless residents in the community. But at the same time, local businesses in I.V. violated state orders, such as the Study Hall Bar.
By May 26, the county began enforcing a face-covering mandate in public areas while businesses began reopening. On that same day, the UC Education Abroad Program suspended all study abroad programs for the fall quarter, affecting 3,313 students.
Graduation, which normally marks the end of an academic year, took place virtually, with graduates celebrating at home across the state, country and world — many separated from Isla Vista.
Summer 2020: Isla Vista Case Levels Begin To Rise
Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced to students by mid-June that fall quarter would be mostly remote and, again, tuition and fees remained the same despite students being unable to access many of the resources paid for with student tuition, like the UCSB Library and the Recreation Center.
In June, Isla Vista saw a significant increase in its cases. Slowly, the college town went from being stagnant at one case to an incline of cases from individual cases and small outbreaks, including one outbreak at a dining hall. By June 22, Isla Vista had seven cases.
By the end of June, Isla Vista reached double digits in COVID-19 cases for the first time, with a total case count of 14.
Come July, a surge of COVID-19 cases across the state prompted Newsom to shut down indoor operations for restaurants, wineries and movie theaters in counties that were on the state watch list, including Santa Barbara County. To prevent a further rise in cases, beaches in the county were shut down for the weekend of July 4.
Though Isla Vista took a brief few months away from its party culture as a result of pandemic, the university got word on July 7 that a private residence in town threw a COVID-19 party, prompting an email outlining potential consequences — like warnings, suspensions or expulsions — for students who violate public health orders.
The consequences of the pandemic also uprooted the lives of international students in the U.S. Following a new policy from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), international students were told that if their university were only offering remote learning during their fall term, they would have to leave the country. In response, the UC system announced on July 8 that it planned to sue the federal government to provide a “temporary restraining order and ‘preliminary and permanent injunctive relief’ to block the [I.C.E.] from forcing international students to leave the country.” Within the next few weeks, the I.C.E. rescinded the policy.
On July 21, a small part of the county began to reopen, with barbershops and hair salons operating outdoors.
Isla Vista had its largest case jump on Aug. 6, with 13 residents testing positive. By Aug. 7, Isla Vista had a total case count of 74. Half of those total cases were reported 17 days prior to the case jump.
On Aug. 20, Isla Vista had the first — and so far, only — death from COVID-19. The deceased individual was between 50 to 69 years old, lived in a congregate care facility and had underlying health conditions.
A little over a week after the first COVID-19 death in Isla Vista, over 300 unmasked people in large groups were on Del Playa Drive, Sabado Tarde Road and Trigo Road between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m on Aug. 28 and 29.
Though student housing contracts for fall quarter were briefly offered by the university, on Aug. 28, Yang reversed this decision and only allowed students with special circumstances to live in campus housing.
Fall Quarter 2020: Parties and Punishment
Fall quarter instruction began Oct. 1, and Isla Vista had 239 total cases.
By early October, it was clear that houselessness was increasing in Isla Vista as a result of the pandemic. In January 2020, there were 69 houseless residents in town. By June, there were 113. Late September, I.V. CSD Board President Spencer Brandt said the increase of houselessness was resulting in a new group of long-term houseless residents.
As a result of canceled housing for fall quarter, resident assistants (RAs) faced unemployment and housing insecurity. In response, RAs formed a coalition in early September to demand the benefits lost as a result of their severed work contracts.
Oct. 9, more than six months into the pandemic, Isla Vista received its first COVID-19 testing site at the I.V. Theater. The site would later become a permanent testing location in Isla Vista. A week later, on Oct. 16, UCSB sent an emergency notification after finding two clusters with a total of 13 COVID-19 cases in privately owned Greek housing.
To prevent the rise of partying and other large gatherings both in I.V. and across the county, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance on Oct. 20 allowing peace officers and public health officials to enforce public health orders with fines. At this time, Isla Vista had 35 active cases — the highest in the county. Van Do-Reynoso, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (SBCPHD), said that the SBCPHD was monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks at five different Greek housing sites in I.V. on Oct. 23.
Oct. 26, UCSB began offering free weekly testing on campus to all students following the dramatic increase in cases.
By the end of October, Isla Vista had almost 400 total cases.
On Nov. 16, Santa Barbara County joined a majority of other counties in the state by moving back into the purple tier, the most restrictive tier under Newsom’s reopening guidelines. Despite the rise in tiers, UCSB offered limited on-campus housing and a slight increase of in-person classes a day after moving into the purple tier. Newsom later announced that counties in the purple tier would have to adhere to a curfew, prohibiting nonessential behavior outside one’s home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
By December, I.V. CSD proposed, passed and placed 20 temporary “pallet homes” that can collectively host up to 40 houseless residents as the houselessness population in town continued to increase. Though houseless residents received one new housing option, they also had multiple taken away. Anisq’Oyo’ Park, Camino Corto Open Space, Sueño Orchard and Del Sol Vernal Pool Reserve were closed to houseless residents, leaving only one other park for encampments: People’s Park.
Dec. 19 marked a turning point for the county: The first shipment of vaccines arrived. More good news followed on Jan. 11, 2021, when UC President Michael V. Drake announced that the UC system plans for in-person instruction come Fall Quarter 2021.
Winter Quarter 2021: Hope for Vaccines
January presented a clash between the start of a vaccination campaign and the winter surge in COVID-19 cases.
The I.V. Theater became a permanent COVID-19 walk-up testing location on Jan. 8. The theater tried to incentivize testing by offering gift cards and coupons from local businesses, along with raffle prizes and Yerba Mates.
One thousand undergraduate students moved into on-campus housing near the beginning of the quarter, while the county remained in the purple tier and was in the midst of a winter surge of COVID-19 cases. UCSB’s decision allowed a few RAs to return to campus.
The weekend of Jan. 16, Isla Vista had 70 active cases — a record number — as the county had the highest COVID-19 spread out of all counties in California. At this time, the county was only vaccinating those in the Phase 1A category: healthcare workers and individuals over the age of 75.
While most areas in the county were seeing a decrease in their cases by the end of January, the City of Santa Barbara stayed stagnant while Isla Vista cases continued to soar.
By Feb. 2, Isla Vista hit over 1,000 total cases, 83 of which were active at the time.
By Feb. 16, the county had begun vaccinating people 65 and older, and by Feb. 26, the county was vaccinating other demographics in the Phase 1B category: emergency services workers, food and agricultural workers and education and childcare workers. February also marked the first month the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was available.
By the end of February, I.V. — along with the rest of the county — saw dramatic decrease in case rates, but the county still remained in the purple tier.
On March 12, Do-Reynoso said the winter surge was officially over. Beginning March 15, country residents aged 16 to 64 with severe underlying conditions were added to the list of people eligible to receive the vaccine.
March 16, Santa Barbara County moved back down into the red tier after staying in the purple tier since November.
For the first time, some in-person campus services began to open for students.
First came the March 23 announcement that the university Recreation Center would be reopening in April, and the university library opened its doors again on March 29.
By April, people 50 and older were eligible to get vaccinated, and beginning April 15, everyone 16 and older joined them.
Spring Quarter 2021: The Cautious Shift to a “New Normal”
Despite improvements in the county and Isla Vista’s case numbers, Deltopia weekend fast approached and with it came fears of a superspreader event.
But large gatherings and positive COVID-19 clusters persisted. The UCSB women’s water polo season was cancelled in early April following a cluster of 10 positive cases.
Despite brief hiccups in case numbers, the county moved into the orange tier for the first time under Newsom’s tier system on April 20. Two days later, there was a cluster of three COVID-19 cases at an undisclosed sorority house.
On April 22, the UC system announced, along with many other colleges and universities, that they will be requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to access on-campus facilities this coming fall once the vaccine is fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Following this announcement, UCSB gave their graduating students two pieces of news: Oprah Winfrey will be their commencement speaker, and they will have an in-person graduation walk. Later, the university announced that graduates can invite up to two people to the event.
The county has thus far continued its downward trend of case metrics. On April 27, Ansorg said that the county’s case rate decreased by 41% over the course of the last two weeks.
Soon, vaccination efforts targeted at students and Isla Vista residents began to increase. UCSB hosted its first mobile clinic and vaccination effort for students on May 6, and I.V. CSD is planning a mobile vaccination clinic in Isla Vista on May 22.
One year and two months into the pandemic, the county and the university have begun easing restrictions and increasing in-person events. According to current plans, Spring Quarter 2021 will be the last remote quarter of the pandemic.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the May 20, 2021 print edition of the Daily Nexus.