“I don’t think there’s a question of whether there will be spikes in cases in 10 to 14 days,” Mark Shrime, a public-health researcher at Harvard, told me. “With so many protests happening, that are getting so much bigger, I don’t think it’s a question of if, but when and where.”
Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, agrees. “All things considered, there’s little doubt that these protests will translate into increased risk of transmission for COVID-19,” she told me by email.
Yet that risk does not lead Majumder to oppose the protests. “I personally believe that these particular protests—which demand justice for black and brown bodies that have been brutalized by the police—are a necessary action,” she said. “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.” Even the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed black people disproportionately, Majumder told me. While about 13 percent of Americans are black, a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths where the victim’s race is known have befallen black people, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.
Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global-health law at Georgetown University, also told me she believed that the protests were justifiable, even amid the public-health crisis. She drew a difference between these protests, against police brutality, and the protests earlier this spring, which opposed mask mandates and social-distancing rules. At the very least, she said, many protesters this weekend were wearing masks, reducing the risk of transmission to the community.
International law would also understand the Floyd-inspired protests differently than it would the anti-mask protests, Phelan said, because it places a premium on the use of civil rights to keep governments accountable. “These protests are currently the primary channel to seek accountability for the governance systems that have led to extrajudicial killings and police violence, but also for the disproportionate death from COVID-19 experienced by black and brown Americans.”
Protesting is protected by constitutional and international law, and yet, at this moment, inescapably dangerous. People who wish to protest should focus first on mitigating their risk of passing the virus along to someone else, the experts told me. Protesters should wear a mask over their mouth and nose to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. “There’s probably evidence—though that evidence is weak—that masking protects me, but there’s more evidence that masking protects you,” Shrime said.
Since chanting seems to spread the virus, Majumder recommends that protesters use noisemakers, drums, and written signs. She also recommended that protesters carry shatterproof goggles and a saline spritz, in case they are pepper-sprayed. “Soothing the irritant with a sterile solution can reduce coughing and sneezing, which are some of the major pathways through which the novel coronavirus is spread,” she said.