Protests risk spread of coronavirus

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The tens of thousands of Americans marching to protest of the death of an unarmed black man may be putting themselves at risk of contracting the coronavirus, setting off what could be a second wave of cases just as the number of new infections begins to ebb in major cities.

Images from almost a week of protests across the country show many peaceful protesters wearing masks. But few appear to be following social distancing guidelines, which recommend people stay six feet apart, something that becomes difficult as crowds grow. 

Even heartening moments of protesters and police coming together to embrace or link arms in solidarity show contacts that could spread the virus.

“With protests, there is a high risk of spread in the sense that people are in close quarters with each other, they’re screaming and yelling,” said Abraar Karan, a public health expert and internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 

Health officials and experts are walking a fine line between telling protesters to go home, a warning that would almost certainly be ignored, and acknowledging the threat of the virus. The California Department of Public Health published recommendations for protesting while maintaining social distance.

“I am concerned that people coming together in protest could lead to increased transmission of coronavirus,” said Rich Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“It’s clear that we’ve seen declines in disease across the country, and part of that is due to social distancing that has taken place throughout communities. As people gather, it’s important that they continue to wear masks, practice good hand-washing and as much as possible keep six feet away from others,” he said. “It’s hard to do that when people are coming together to march or in a crowd, but it is important in terms of reducing disease transmission.”

State and local officials in some of the cities hit hardest by the virus have issued calls for calm. Over the weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said he worried the protests could become “super-spreader” events. Officials in dozens of cities have issued curfew orders to try to stem protests that have at times turned violent.

“If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) told protesters.

Appearing on CNN on Sunday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he was concerned by the prospect of a second wave.

“There’s no question when you put hundreds or thousands of people together in close proximity when we’ve got this virus all over the streets, it’s not healthy,” Hogan said. “Two weeks from now, across America, we’re going to find out whether or not this gives us a spike and drives the numbers back up again.”

The peaceful protesters face a cruel irony that raising their voices against injustice for George Floyd comes at the risk of exposing them to a virus that preys on systemic injustice. 

The virus has already impacted brown and black people at far greater rates than whites, for a host of reasons: Minorities are more likely to live in densely populated areas where air pollution that leads to underlying conditions is worse. They are more likely to work in service sector jobs that put them in close proximity with others, raising the prospects that they could come into contact with the virus. 

“These are groups where more people are being put into an incredible dilemma of either staying home to protect themselves and their families and communities or going to work so they can put food on the table and prevent themselves from being evicted,” Besser said.

Black workers make up about 1 in 9 workers in the United States and 1 in 6 front-line industry workers, according to a report released Monday by the Economic Policy Institute. Black workers are disproportionately represented in grocery stores, convenience and drug stores, public transit, health care, child care, and the social services sector, the report found.

And they are less likely to have access to quality health care. That likely meant fewer minorities could meet the early thresholds for getting a coronavirus test, when limited testing supplies meant someone needed a note from a primary care provider.

“I don’t think you solve the COVID pandemic without addressing racism,” Karan said. “Widespread major reform is needed, and it’s not separate from COVID. It’s actually very related and interlinked with COVID.”

That people of color would take the risk to protest even in the face of the outbreak underscores just how much the double assault of a virus that disproportionately impacts their communities and a killing so brazenly and wantonly carried out on camera has set off long-simmering tensions.

“For a lot of people, they feel like they have no other option. And that says a lot,” Karan said. “You have people willing to risk their life right now because that’s how much it means to them.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 George Floyd protests lockdowns Social distancing

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