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City of Santa Clarita explores creating own health department

This past spring, local entrepreneur and community activist Taylor Kellstrom never imagined that the business he birthed 11 years ago, “The Book Exchange,” would suddenly fall prey to an international pandemic.

After all, the ambitious 30-year-old is a former motocross professional at the age of 16, elected Santa Clarita “Man of the Year” for the last eight years for his community work, an ambassador for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, past president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, co-founder of the only cancer wellness center in the valley, Hopes Haven, a husband, father and a real estate agent all to boot.

Indeed, everything he has touched turned to gold until COVID-19 struck.

“When I heard at the end of April that College of the Canyons (COC) was not going to have students on campus for fall semester, there was a week that my wife and I literally sat down and tried to brainstorm what we were gonna do,” Kellstrom said.

Entrepreneur and community activist Taylor Kellstrom stands in front of his real estate office in Old Town Newhall. Realty is one of his many endeavors since the closing of “The Book Exchange.”

Like so many business owners around the country, Kellstrom’s golden touch couldn’t save the brick and mortar location of “The Book Exchange,” a local treasure and popular bookstore for College of the Canyons (COC) students.

The store, which sells used and discounted textbooks,  is amongst numerous business casualties in Santa Clarita that have been strangled into non-existence by COVID-19. And not even a young man of such accomplishments like Kellstrom could withstand the bold and restrictive health orders of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“The Book Exchange” is empty and dormant. The popular bookstore was a local treasure for College of the Canyons students who purchased used and discounted textbooks.

Santa Clarita, like many cities in the County of Los Angeles, is under the jurisdiction of the county public health agency, which covers a mammoth territory with approximately 10 million residents.

Santa Clarita, with a population of just over 200,000, is the third-largest city in L.A. County and has also fallen victim to strict health orders. The effect has seen a ripple wave of businesses shutter across the city and the region since March of this year, including popular spots like The Book Exchange, the Ice Station, Pier One Imports, Round Table Pizza and others.

(Above) Pier One Imports on Magic Mountain Pkwy. (Below) the Ice Station Valencia on Smyth Drive. Both are two business casualties during an unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic.

But help could be on the way. In recent weeks, Mayor Cameron Smyth has presented to the city council a proposal for exploring the feasibility of having more local or regional control.

“My thought was to look at the idea of creating our own health department,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth.

Agreeing with Smyth at a recent city council meeting, the council will allocate $25,000 to hire a consultant to research the merits of such a proposal. 

Mayor Cameron Smyth at a recent and unrelated press conference. Mayor Smyth has proposed hiring a consultant for the city to look into the feasibility of a local or regional public health department.

Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley have seen markedly lower numbers of COVID-19 infections than the greater Los Angeles area, but gets lumped in and suffers the same fate of “stay at home” orders and closures as other areas with higher numbers of infection.

“With the daily metrics from L.A. County, it is very difficult to see a scenario where we will ever get out of the purple range we are in,” according to Mayor Smyth referring to the county’s color-coded, tiering system for restrictions.

Cities like Long Beach and Pasadena have their own public health departments. The assumption is those cities can make their own policies and escape the more restrictive county health orders. However, Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer said that’s not necessarily the case.

“Their health departments (Pasadena and Long Beach) are doing nothing different from L.A. County,” says Hofbauer. “The state isn’t delegating its authority to the (individual cities) health departments, they’re delegating the authority to the counties.”

The proposal to create a local health authority with limited duties or even a regional authority that includes the Antelope Valley, while seemingly more feasible, isn’t without its own issues.

“If we trade this off, there’s a huge expense to operating any sort of bureaucracy, let alone a health department,” said Mayor Hofbauer.

And while Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris was not available for comment at the time this article was written, Mayor Hofbauer seems pretty convinced that the three mayors may be forced to take some type of action.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Hofbauer added.

Pasadena and Long Beach both have their own public health departments. However, neither agency seems to exercise any autonomy as their health orders mirror the county agency.

Meanwhile, Taylor Kellstrom and his wife have pivoted fairly well by going virtual with their book business with plans to return to a brick-and-mortar operation in better times. He has an affable and mild-mannered approach to this crisis.

“I think our own health department would do wonders,” said Kellstrom. “Businesses are really struggling, especially restaurants. If Santa Clarita was able to create a public health department that will put out safe guidelines and restrictions that help business owners and people that live here, we need to get things back to normal.”

Colin Ferguson, Sarah Hicks, Felipe Gonzalez and Jackie Cardenas also contributed to this story.

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