How Limiting Protests Will Spread the Virus

Crowded gatherings are only part of the equation.

Protests responding to the killing of George Floyd have now spread to every state in the country and even internationally.

Public-health experts have warned that the protests will lead to a spike in coronavirus infections, but what role does the policing of the protests play in that dynamic? Staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells discuss on the podcast Social Distance:


What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: So we’ve actually gotten a question from a listener, Jenn, about the protests. She wrote in and asked, “Could you talk about how safe it is health-wise to take part in the protests?” I mean, we’ve been sort of talking for months about how the most important thing is to stay away from other people. Why don’t we do an overview of what we know about the science of transmission?

James Hamblin: Yeah, at the very beginning [of the pandemic], when we were uncertain of most everything, it seemed that most transmission was happening from surfaces. But it seems to be less of a factor in transmission than previously assumed.

Wells: So I’ve been scrubbing my hands raw for nothing.

Hamblin: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think that the most common form of transmission is prolonged indoor close contact. So between relatives, family members, cellmates, and people who live in nursing homes. It is not from randomly touching a subway pole.

Wells: It just means that masks are even more important.

Hamblin: I would say so, yeah. When you’re protesting, outdoor transmission seems to be extremely limited. There are studies in restaurants now, inside churches, at a choir practice—that show when groups get together in enclosed spaces indoors and especially when they are singing and or presumably yelling or chanting—that’s a dangerous scenario. But it becomes much less dangerous when you’re outdoors and you’re moving around.

Read: So, what can we do now?

Wells: There are no studies showing outdoor transmission?

Hamblin: Not to my knowledge. If you’re out having a picnic and you sit with someone for an hour and you’re real close to them, absolutely. You could definitely transmit it to them. But it is just much, much more safe than being indoors. The complicating thing I think about protesting, too, is that the idea is that when people are singing in a choir practice you’re spewing a lot into the air. And a lot of people doing that simultaneously does increase the amount of respiratory droplets that are going to be floating around.

Wells: Right. I mean, I’ve been reading that epidemiologists are like, wait two weeks and we’re going to see a spike all across the country. So they must expect that this isn’t completely safe.

Hamblin: I think you can do it safely. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who end up making conversation with someone or getting up in someone’s face and having some kind of confrontation or scenarios like that where there could be an act of transmission. If you are careful to avoid that and don’t fall into old ways of not social distancing just because you’re in this new headspace, then it can be done very safely.

Wells: So basically the key is just keep distance when you can and wear a mask?

Hamblin: It’s complicated like usual, but also [protesting] is not inherently what’s going to drive spikes in transmission.

Wells: Then why are epidemiologists talking about spikes in two weeks?

Hamblin: Well, I think these are really emotional and charged situations. And it feels like the urgency of this moment is such that everything else is irrelevant. And I think that’s where you start to worry about transmission. So, without adjudicating that, I would just say that for people who are worried that they can’t participate—there are ways to do it safely and even if you want to be absolutely safe, I think there are ways to be at the periphery and be in supportive roles to people who are marching. It’s when these scenarios get intense and people feel threatened or caught up in a moment of urgency that they lose the sense of ability to protest safely. And that comes often from the escalation from people who are policing the protests.

Wells: Right. I’ve seen several instances of protesters kind of being boxed in or actually pushed together by police.

Hamblin: Yeah, you saw that on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. That’s an area where the police are actually forcing people into close proximity.

Wells: They’re also arresting people and taking people to jail which we’ve talked about is a dangerous place for transmission. So you may not be completely in control of your ability to distance.

Hamblin: Yeah, they were loading people on buses. There were a lot of stories of bus drivers refusing. And that’s an interesting dynamic to have police just sort of trying to commandeer buses to become paddy wagons. But, yeah, forcing a bunch of people onto a bus is definitely an unsafe scenario. That’s kind of directly antithetical to everything that has been said before in it in terms of directives.

Wells: It is a strange time for messaging from the government, isn’t it? I think one of the arguments from protesters might be what we’re protesting against is also an existential health threat.

Hamblin: Right. And as you see and hear at the protests, it’s largely about police violence, but it’s about inequity of all sorts, including disparities in how COVID-19 has played out, who has gotten tested, who’s gotten hit hardest by the disease, and who has access to care. I think when people have been left to feel really disempowered and disenfranchised and helpless, they become willing to take on more risk.

Wells: So we’ve talked about how anyone participating in the protest might think about safety. Are there things that the government or police forces could do to make these protests safer?

Hamblin: Yeah, it’s similar to my feeling about policing parks, really. The notion that these things should be contained in the small spaces and small periods of time will also create density. Theoretically, the more that you could allow people to be spaced out and to safely protest, the less transmission you would see. Whereas the mutual escalation and earlier curfews and deployment of more and more force to draw stricter boundaries and to arrest more people—that’s the cycle that I’m really worried about.

Wells: It’s hard to understand the rationale here. It’s like all of this stuff we’ve been doing to try to slow the spread is actually being reversed in some way.

Hamblin: Right. What I’m really worried about is that escalation. It requires really deft leadership to be able to de-escalate and to be able to give people a lot of space and time and support to safely protest and not give in to the temptation of whatever posturing it is that says you’re going to crack down and force people into small spaces and arrest them and give them less space and give them less time to be out in the world. And I mean, that seems to be the universal dynamic here: There’s some instance of looting or a police van is burned or something and the political reaction has to be we’re going to clamp down real hard. That makes people act out more but it also drives people more into higher-risk transmission scenarios, either because they’re in jail or because they’re in a very confined protest space or they’re trapped on a bridge or they’re in a bus being held.

Wells: Right. So that’s actually where the transmission is going to happen. Not necessarily people walking down a wide avenue.

Hamblin: Yeah. People in D.C. have told me that the grocery stores are suddenly way more crowded because everybody’s trying to get in before 7:00 p.m. in that window between ending work at 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. and having to make sure you have everything you need by 7:00 p.m. And that you’ve gone for your walk or your run and walked the dog. Suddenly things are very crowded.

Wells: So, it’s not necessarily the protests themselves that are going to cause the spike, but the reaction to the protests is definitely creating situations where we’re going to see transmission.

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