How to more safely protest in a pandemic

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Protesters are at risk of retaliation from police as well as of contracting Covid-19. | Stanton Sharpe/LightRocket/Getty Images

Tips for reducing the risk of spreading the coronavirus in a mass gathering, from public health experts.

As protesters take to the streets in dozens of US cities to mourn the death of George Floyd, resist police violence, and demand justice, many are wondering whether it’s possible to protest safely with the Covid-19 pandemic still spreading and taking lives.

On social media, there’s been a lot of discussion of the intersecting risks: how protesters risk retaliation from police, risk violence at the hands of counterprotesters, and risk Covid-19 infection, which they could then spread to others. And many have judged the protesters harshly for taking all of these risks.

But looming above these immediate risks is the long history of police violence as a wretched public health crisis of its own.

As the basketball legend and writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the LA Times, “African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.”

August Nimtz Jr., who joined protests in Minneapolis on Tuesday, told Time, “I’m a 77-year-old African-American male. I’ve gotta be concerned [about catching COVID-19], but at the same time there’s the importance of coming out into the streets. We had to do this. If we don’t do it the cops will get away with it again.”

Fears that the protests may lead to more Covid-19 infections, and set the US back further in its fight against the virus, are understandable. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN Sunday she was particularly worried the protests might fan outbreaks in communities of color already disproportionately impacted by the virus. “I’m extremely concerned we are seeing mass gatherings,” Bottoms said. “We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”

One obvious reason the gatherings may be risky is that it can be very hard, if not impossible, to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others in large gatherings. Some health departments are still urging people to try:

The good news, according to epidemiologists and doctors, is that there are many ways (besides wearing a mask) to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus or being infected in the streets while exercising the right to protest. The risk will not be zero, but protesters can minimize harm to themselves and others.

Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, summed up the tips in this Saturday tweet:

As they’ve disseminated this advice, Murray and several other health experts have been accused of hypocrisy — for condemning the anti-lockdown protests of April and early May as a Covid-19 risk, but not doing same for the police violence protests.

Murray clarified her position: “Yes, I condemned the anti-lockdown protests,” she wrote. “Yes, I support the #BlackLivesMatter protests. No, those aren’t contradictory views. COVID is a public health emergency. So is racism. We need to fight both.”

Here’s how Tara Smith of Kent State University put it:

Other health experts have been jumping in with additional helpful advice for protesters, who may be exposed to pepper spray and rubber bullets in confrontations with police:

To protect the eyes from rubber bullets, protections like face shields, umbrellas, safety glasses, and goggles are recommended:

As the protests gain momentum, some government officials and businesses are helping to mitigate the risks by supplying protesters with masks and hand sanitizer.

Meanwhile, some protesters are reminding each other that they should stay home if they feel ill or have a fever, helping to reduce the risk of spread for everyone.


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Author: Eliza Barclay

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