Will Protests Become ‘Super-Spreader Events’?

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Protesters marching for racial justice in Washington D.C. on May 30, 2020. Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr.

As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators march in cities across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, health officials and elected officials alike fear that the mass gatherings could bring on a future intense “second wave” of the coronavirus, reports NPR.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz have both warned that the protests could become “super-spreader events” — referring to the types of gatherings with mass amounts of people that can lead to an “explosion of secondary infections,” the New York Times and 9&10 News report.

However, some protesters believe the cause is more important than the fear of the virus. 

Steve Inskeep, a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, discussed how he saw “key ingredients of transmission” while in Washington D.C. yesterday, mainly thousands of people who were not standing 6 feet apart. Even though most of the protesters wore masks, it was clear that not everyone was following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines to stop the spread of the virus.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is also worried about the protest’s consequences in light of the pandemic. She spoke to reporters on NBC, as quoted by NPR, saying, “I’m concerned that we had mass gatherings in our streets when we just lifted a stay-at-home order and what that could mean for spikes in our coronavirus cases later.”

Mayor Bowser said she’s “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.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shared the same sentiment during his Daily Coronavirus Briefing yesterday, saying that mass gathering protests could flare up the coronavirus’s spread, New York Daily News reports. 

New York City is scheduled to begin reopening and entering “Phase 1” of NY Forward next week on June 8, and Gov. Cuomo doesn’t want these protests to create a setback.

“Don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said, as quoted by the New York Daily News. “We’re talking about reopening in one week in New York City and now we’re seeing these mask-less gatherings over the past several nights that could in fact exacerbate the COVID-19 spread.”

Health officials are working diligently to respond to the lawmaker’s fears.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told MPR News that the state Health Department is bracing “for the potential spike,” but she added that “transmission may be limited because the demonstrations have been held outside.” 

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, agrees that the open-air should lessen our fears of a second wave. 

“The outdoor air dilutes the virus and reduces the infectious dose that might be out there, and if there are breezes blowing, that further dilutes the virus in the air,” Dr. Schaffner explained to the New York Times.

“There was literally a lot of running around, which means they’re exhaling more profoundly, but also passing each other very quickly,” Dr. Schaffner said.

However, Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian who studies pandemics, says even though the protests have been outdoors, the risk is still high because of the proximity to others.

“Public gatherings are public gatherings — it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting or cheering,” Dr. Markel told the New York Times, adding that since the coronavirus is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets, the shouting and chanting at protests can “accelerate the spread.” 

Dr. Markel concluded, predicting, “That’s one reason we’re not having large baseball games and may not have college football this fall.”

One thing that health officials can agree on though, is that we will have to wait weeks to know the true extent of the impact these protests have had on the spread of the virus. 

Despite all of this, some protestors see the justice they’re fighting for as more important than the fear of catching the coronavirus.  

Glen Ray, President of the Anniston-Calhoun County Alabama NAACP told a local ABC affiliate, “I don’t worry too much about the coronavirus as a silent killer because high blood pressure has been in our communities for years.”

“We’ve survived that,” Ray continued. “I’d be more worried, driving at 12 o’clock at night worrying about the police pulling me over for a tail light, and that’s a death sentence, then worrying about a coronavirus that I may not see or get.”

“COVID has affected us for what — two, three months?” Ashley Wilkerson, an African American actress, poet, and wellness practitioner, told LA Times reporters. 

“We’re talking centuries upon centuries of oppression — of devaluing black lives.”

Also in Los Angeles, reporters detailed that in the window of a Mexican restaurant called Antonio’s, signs were posted, saying “Black Lives Matter,” while next to it in another window, a sign stated, “Caution Maintain Social Distancing.”

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer

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