There is absolutely no question that the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd will lead to spikes in coronavirus cases — the only question is how big they will be and where. Following months of indoor sheltering and avoiding large groups, thousands took to the streets to express outrage over the constant of police brutality against black Americans. And while many demonstrators wore masks, social distancing has fallen by the wayside — particularly amid the chaos of clashes with police.
With states phasing out stay-at-home orders while the pandemic still rages — almost 1,000 Americans died from COVID-19 on Saturday — public-health experts warned on Sunday of the potential for protests to spark new outbreaks and to reverse the national decline in new cases that has been the trend since late April. On CBS’s Face the Nation, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb weighed in on the risk of protesters and police contracting the coronavirus with a grim prognosis:
“There’s going to be a lot of issues coming out of what’s happened in the last week, but one of them is going to be that chains of transmission will have become lit from these gatherings.
This country isn’t through this epidemic. This is continuing to expand but at a much slower rate. But it’s still expanding, and we still have pockets of spread in communities that aren’t under good control.”
Gottlieb also noted that Minnesota, where protests first broke out in George Floyd’s home city of Minneapolis, was experiencing a small surge in new COVID-19 cases prior to the demonstrations.
Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Dr. Theodore Long, who is leading New York City’s contact-tracing effort, both urged protesters to get tested for the coronavirus. Mayor de Blasio added that the city’s protests, which involved an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people on Saturday night, would not push back New York’s target of reopening on June 8. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., even encouraged residents to consider self-isolation if they live with an at-risk family member: “I’m so concerned about it that I’m urging everybody to consider their exposure, if they need to isolate from their family members when they go home and if they need to be tested … because we have worked very hard to blunt the curve.”
On CNN’s State of the Union, Bottoms worried that black citizens — already hit 2.4 times harder than whites during the pandemic — would face particularly significant upticks in the coming weeks. She also noted her own difficulties in taking her eye off the pandemic in recent days:
Around 11:30 last night, I realized that I hadn’t looked at our coronavirus numbers in two days. And that’s frightening, because it’s a pandemic, and people of color are getting hit harder. I am extremely concerned when we are seeing mass gatherings. And we know what’s already happening in our community with this virus … we’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.
Public-health experts who spoke with the Daily Beast highlighted other concerns, including the importance of avoiding elderly and other at-risk people after protesting and the possibility that increased stress and lung damage from tear gas could make people more susceptible to a severe infection. Lawrence Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told the Daily Beast that travel to and from the protests would have a significant impact on the potential for outbreaks: “If they’re stopping in restaurants, using public bathrooms, and taking public transportation, all of those things are helping the virus move from one place to another because humans are vectors.”
Demonstrators, meanwhile, are aware of the hazards of gathering by the thousands. “It’s not okay that in the middle of a pandemic we have to be out here risking our lives,” Spence Ingram, a 25-year-old black woman, told the Associated Press at the state capitol in Atlanta on Friday. “But I have to protest for my life and fight for my life all the time.”