On social media and in the comments of this blog, there has been an increase in the number of people blaming recent anti-police brutality protests for the surge in COVID-19 cases in Dallas and around Texas. However, early analysis suggests that the protests are not responsible for the pandemic’s second wave. In fact, not only has one new research paper suggested that the protests may have helped contain the spread in the broader population by increasing social distancing, the protests have taught us valuable lessons about how COVID-19 spreads.
Here are five reasons why people need to stop blaming protesters for spreading COVID-19:
1. There Have Not Been COVID-19 Surges in Many Cities that Saw Huge Protests.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there were massive protests and demonstrations held in 300 cities around the country. Many of these places saw larger gatherings of people than we saw in Dallas. And yet, even in former COVID-19 hotspots—like New York, Long Island, and Seattle—the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all continued their downward trend in the weeks after the demonstrations.
- Outdoors Transmission is Less Likely Than Indoor Transmission.
We have learned a lot about this bastard virus in the months since it first arrived in the U.S. One big lesson about its spread is that outdoor transmission is far less likely than indoor transmission. A study in Japan found that indoor transmission is 18.7 times more likely than an open-air environment. A study in China that reviewed thousands of cases found only one instance of outdoor transmission. It is likely that because the protests were all outside, the risk of spreading the disease was lower than, say, the bars and restaurants that have reopened in Texas. In Dallas County, about 83 percent of those hospitalized from coronavirus are critical infrastructure workers—transportation, logistics, food, agriculture, construction, public works, and retail.
3. Protesters Were Mostly Wearing Masks
Although there has been plenty of cynical chatter on the interwebs about protesters not wearing masks and congregating in large groups during the pandemic, the reality is most protesters were wearing masks. Some organizers brought extra masks to the rallies and distributed them to people who needed them. And most of the epidemiological research into the spread of COVID-19 shows that wearing masks and social distancing are the most important things you can do to stop the spread of the virus.
“What I’ve seen [at the protests] supports things that we already knew, which are that if you’re going to gather, being further apart is better than being stuck close together, that being is masked is better than being unmasked, and that being outside is better than being inside,” Janet Baseman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, told Time.
4. Protesters Were Moving, Which Also Limits Risk
Sure, there were times when protesters gathered in one spot to listen to speeches, but the marchers also, well, marched. Scientists say that moving around decreases one’s chances of coming into contact with a sufficient concentration of the virus to catch the disease. “This doesn’t say that being in a crowd is not risky,” Howard Markel, a physician and historian of medicine at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times, adding that protesters may have been “incredibly lucky.” But when combined with being outdoors and wearing masks, moving may have also limited that risk.
- Social Distancing May Have Increased During the Protests
This one is a little counter intuitive, but a new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research that used anonymous cell phone data to track movement in cities during the protests (yes, the availability of such data creeps me out) showed that social distancing increased among the wider population during the protests. As demonstrators took to the streets, a lot people decided to stay home. This may also help to explain why the virus hasn’t surged in most of the cities around the country that saw large-scale protests.
In fact, rather than serving as “super spreader” events, the protests may have offered an impromptu experiment that lends new insight into our understanding of how the COVID-19 virus spreads. As protests broke out in cities, some local jurisdictions rushed to test protesters for the virus. Minnesota found that 1.5 percent of protesters tested positive for the virus. In Massachusetts, around 3 percent of the protesters tested positive. This may seem low, perhaps suggesting that protests in places where there was already a slowing of the virus’ spread were less potent spreader events than protests in places like Texas, which was already beginning its new surge. But that’s not the case.
Roger Shapiro, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Wired that 1 percent is about the expected background level for community transmission if one took a large sample of randomly selected people. In other words, the Minnesota and Massachusetts data suggests there may have been a slightly above average percentage of people at the protests who had been exposed to the virus. And yet, the protests have not resulted in new surges in those places. The fact that those places have not seen a subsequent surge reinforces the science that shows that COVID-19 mostly spreads among people who gathered together indoors.
Even Gov. Greg Abbott now admits that his big regret in his COVID-19 response was allowing the bars to reopen prematurely. Given what we now know about how the virus spreads, he might add to that list not requiring everyone wear masks in public places and creating clear, statewide standards for enforcing masks and social distancing inside essential businesses. Throw in a serious escalation in widespread population testing—like the kind some cities rapidly deployed to test protesters—and Texas might actually have a strategy for getting out of this thing and joining the rest of the world in moving back toward a day-to-day existence that looks a little more like normal life.
In other words, rather than blame them for the spread, we should thank the protesters for helping to deepen our understanding of the pandemic — as well as the systemic injustices of policing in America.