Critics suggested that such mass gatherings will exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. In fact, there is little evidence that bears that out.
For some, Fourth of July weekend was marked with the typical barbecues, fireworks displays, and celebrations. Many Americans, however, chose not to commemorate the holiday and instead took to the streets to protest instead of parade.
This past weekend’s gatherings in Philadelphia followed more than a month of demonstrations in Pennsylvania and across the country. Various events were organized by multiple local groups in Center City—including those grieving enslaved ancestors, honoring George Floyd, and calling attention to the lives and needs of Black community members who are transgender. Refuse Fascism Philly also marched to call for the end of the Trump-Pence administration.
Additionally, the Black liberation organization MOVE held its annual march calling for the end of police brutality and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an imprisoned journalist who was convicted in 1982 of killing a police officer during a confrontation between the officer and Abu-Jamal’s brother.
Despite issuing lockdown orders in March, Gov. Tom Wolf has allowed protests and religious services, which are constitutionally protected, to continue throughout the pandemic. On June 6, he attended a protest in Harrisburg, which called for an end to police brutality after Floyd’s death, as an attempt to de-escalate increasing tensions felt around the country.
Many critics have suggested that such mass gatherings will exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. In fact, there is little evidence that the nationwide protests that have erupted after Floyd’s death on Memorial Day caused a significant increase in coronavirus infections, according to a working paper released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
If the protests had driven an uptick in cases, public health experts say, the spikes would have become apparent within two weeks—and perhaps as early as five days. But that didn’t happen in many cities with the largest demonstrations, including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.
Only one of the 13 cities involved in the earliest wave of protests after Memorial Day had an increase that would fit the pattern: That was Phoenix, where experts say cases and hospitalizations surged after a decision by Gov. Doug Ducey to end Arizona’s stay-at-home order on May 15 and eased restrictions on businesses.
The World Health Organization supports demonstrators and encourages participants to follow recommendations for staying safe. Some epidemiologists say confronting systemic racism is vital to ensuring public health because in many ways this issue is an even greater threat than the virus.
“Racism underlies both the police violence and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people, and is an urgent crisis that must be addressed justly and humanely,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
Protest organizers argue that these events can abide by local regulations and federal guidelines for managing the pandemic while calling for justice and an end to systemic racism.
Social Distancing in Full Effect from the Beginning
One of the first protests in Philadelphia to mourn the death of George Floyd was on May 30 and included a socially distanced rally that featured nine minutes of kneeling, speakers who talked about their own experiences of racial discrimination, chants in solidarity, and a food bank, where protesters collected and distributed donations for others.
Volunteers marked the ground with X’s for participants to use as guides for maintaining a safe distance from one another. Masks and gloves were given to those who didn’t have them. To signal the crowd, some protesters clapped or stomped rhythmically to avoid unnecessarily lowering face masks to shout.
A second rally took place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that same day. Some gathered on the famous steps up to the historic building, where it was more challenging to stay six feet away from one another as recommended by the CDC. Other protesters found ways to participate at a distance they were comfortable with: With their posters propped up next to them, many sat on picnic blankets on nearby lawns or on the fountains and streets that lead up to the building. Some stood with family members while staying a safe distance from those they didn’t know, and most participants wore masks.
Emergency Volunteers and Supplies on Hand
The sun shined directly onto participants without many shady coverings along major roads, so volunteers walked throughout the downtown crowds handing out water, snacks, hand sanitizer, and first aid supplies. Supply stations were set up around the city for those who would later march through the streets.
Medics walked with protesters to administer first aid if needed. They carried additional supplies for those with other emergency health concerns—epipens for allergic reactions and glucose for those with diabetes. They also carried eye-flush solution, milk, and water bottles to treat exposure to tear gas.
One of the volunteer medics out during this first week of protests was Emily, an emergency room doctor who was volunteering anonymously to avoid being reprimanded for providing care outside of her hospital. (As a result, she asked The Keystone not to include her last name.) She brought supplies for emergency wound care. “I’m prepared for anything,” she said on June 2, the day after a SWAT team cornered protesters on I-676 with tear gas and rubber bullets. “If you need it, I’ll find a way to help.” After that encounter, Emily said she had to dress wounds on protesters who’d been shot with rubber bullets and exposed to tear gas.
Some experts have noted that the actions of police—who have used tear gas and crowded protestors onto buses and in jails during arrests—are more likely to lead to COVID-19 transmissions than marching and rallies. The coughing and retching that occurs after inhaling chemical agents causes infectious droplets to circulate in the air.
Rasmussen, the virologist, also said that she is most concerned for those who have been arrested because of the close quarters they’re kept in and the inability to practice hand hygiene while detained.
How to Prepare to Protest Safely
One theory about why these large gatherings have not drastically impacted the number of coronavirus cases is that it’s safer to gather in outdoor spaces. It also appears that many people have stayed home to avoid protesters.
For those who hope to join events in the future, Emily explained the importance of planning ahead and using infographics as checklists to ensure you’ve carefully considered all aspects of how attending could impact you.
Protesters should bring the best personal protective equipment they have—including gas masks—even if it’s less comfortable than cloth styles. “People can try to walk away to a less crowded area for relief from discomfort,” Emily said, “but they can’t add layers of protection they didn’t bring if they realize they need them later.”
Rasmussen said participants should also consider using noisemakers or whistles instead of shouting. “Whenever possible, spread out,” she continued. “Don’t congregate with large crowds and march or walk rather than standing still in one place with large crowds.”
Importantly, anyone who has recently experienced symptoms of COVID-19 or recovered after testing positive should not attend these rallies. “They’re at increased risk for complications associated with exposure to tear gas or even exercise and dehydration,” Emily said. “Their systems are fragile and their bodies likely still aren’t operating at 100%.”
“People who are immunocompromised or worried about other safety risks should find ways to help from home,” she continued. “If you’re an activist, no shame in keeping yourself safe as long as you’re committing to other actions.”
She referenced a blog post that explores actions white allies can take to promote racial justice. “Many of these can be done from home.”
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.