Will Mass Demonstrations Lead to an Uptick in COVID-19 Cases?

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Reopening was always meant to be gradual, which explains why states remain cautious as they continue to roll-out their piecemeal plans to resume public life after months of coronavirus-related lockdowns. Then George Floyd died in public view at the hands of a police officer and protesters flooded the streets in response. Social distancing ended and mask wearing has become intermittent. So much for gradual.

Massive crowds of protesters, chanting and marching in close proximity to one another, now have some concerned that these public gatherings could accelerate a second wave of the coronavirus, which has only just peaked in certain areas. Is the fear valid?

Shoulder to Shoulder

The vast majority of experts continue to agree that the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing, which means staying at home when possible and maintaining at least six feet of distance from others when interaction is necessary.

But the demonstrations that have packed the streets of almost every major city in America frequently put protesters shoulder-to-shoulder, with little opportunity to keep six feet apart.

United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams is now saying that “there is every reason to expect that we will see new clusters and potentially new outbreaks moving forward” as a result of the mass gatherings.

In addition to the sheer closeness of bodies, there is also a risk in the chanting and public speaking that have become integral parts of these demonstrations. We now know that COVID-19 is spread through droplets that escape the mouth when people speak, resulting in the high likelihood of spread at a vocal protest.

Minimal Risk?

Still, there is reason to believe that the demonstrations will not be as detrimental as some fear.

First, the majority of protestors have worn facial masks, which the Centers for Disease Control maintain are effective at preventing the spread of droplets from the mouth. In fact, New York Times columnist Amanda Hess posits that masks have become an unlikely symbol of the movement, a representation of civic duty to protect one another from the spread of the virus, even in times of protest.

Another factor to consider is that the demonstrations have, by-and-large, taken place outdoors, which experts agree is a safer location for mass gatherings than an indoor venue. The virus is less likely to linger in a single spot in the fresh air than it is in a confined, indoor area.

Furthermore, many of the states that are further along in the reopening process, which have allowed outdoor gatherings on beaches and in restaurants, have not yet seen a massive resurgence of cases. Chris Meekins, a health policy advisor for Raymond James, admits that he’s “not convinced we’re going to have a notable uptick in cases for the virus” among protesters, noting data from states with lax restrictions. “We have weeks of states reopening, and we haven’t seen the surge we expected.”

Asked about the potential health risks, many protesters have responded that the urgency of the fight to end police brutality and bring about racial justice outweighs the risk of contracting COVID-19. And the majority of demonstrators are relatively young, and therefore less susceptible to the virus than their elders (though an asymptomatic person could still carry coronavirus pathogens to their senior relatives or neighbors).

Play it Safe

However you weigh the risks, there are some steps that anyone who has been near a public demonstration can take to play it safer.

Health officials in Minnesota, the epicenter of the civil unrest, have recommended that all demonstrators and first responders get a coronavirus test. Meanwhile, the New York City health department said in an email it is “inviting anyone who has been out demonstrating over the past few days to come get tested.”

On Thursday, UCLA Health released guidelines for anyone present at a demonstration. They recommend self-quarantining after a protest to protect other household members, wearing a mask during demonstrations and considering the use of a drum or noisemaker as opposed to chanting or singing.

Still, the executives of California’s foremost health system recognized that “abstinence in the form of strict adherence to stay-at-home orders is widely viewed as an unacceptable response, tantamount to silence or inaction, harm reduction during and following these protests will reduce the risk of SARS-COV-2 spread in our communities.”

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