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Protests Drown Out Public Health’s COVID-19 Warnings

For weeks, public officials have warned against the dangers of mass gatherings. Now, some seem OK with protests. That's going to make it harder to convince people to avoid other activities.

A mass protest against the death of George Floyd at Atlanta's Olympic Park on June 3, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
COVID-19 doesn’t care if your cause is just. Given the chance to ride a droplet from one human to another, the virus will do so, whether those people are in close quarters at work, a beach — or a protest.

After months of people largely staying apart, millions have gathered in an ongoing series of protests against police brutality and racism all over the country. Rather than being horrified, some prominent voices in public health are applauding.

“Asking people to choose between their rights & demands for justice and their health is not a choice we need to ask of people,” tweeted Andy Slavitt, a former top health official in the Obama administration and a prominent commentator and government adviser during the coronavirus pandemic. “Going to a protest doesn’t mean people are throwing caution to the wind.”

He’s not alone. Other health experts have made similar comments in recent days, undermining their own weeks of warnings. Hundreds of public health workers have signed an open letter in support of the protests. "As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission," the letter states. "We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of black people in the United states."

States blocked non-work “mass gatherings,” defined as being as few as 10 people. Now, many mayors and governors have given either tacit or explicit blessings to gathering in much larger numbers.

“I support these protests and I thank the thousands of residents who peacefully and respectfully took part,” Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who has overseen one of the most restrictive COVID-19 regimes, said at a news conference on Monday. “It’s one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening and it’s another to come out in peaceful protest, overwhelmingly about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes.”

All of this comes as a head-spinning shock to skeptics of the stay-at-home approach. For weeks, conservatives who argued that some activities needed to continue despite the health risks were described as “selfish” or even “evil.” Now, they see progressives flooding the streets and wonder why public health officials aren’t demanding that they go home.

“The protests have exposed the absurdity of the continued lockdowns,” writes New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz. “It’s either a public health emergency and crowds must be stopped or it’s not. It cannot be both.”

After months of invoking “science” and “data” to drown out counter-arguments, public health officials are now conceding that politics is an essential part of life. The right to assemble is a constitutional right. But other rights have been suspended due to the pandemic. The right to worship is also protected by the First Amendment, but the ability of states to block churches from holding in-person services has been fought all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld a California ban last week. 

“Conservatives aren’t mad because there are protests,” tweeted GOP consultant Drew Holden. “We’re mad because ALL OF YOU said we were evil for suggesting mere weeks ago that some things are too important to keep locked down.”

By expressing sympathy for protests, public health officials have ceded the moral high ground, or at least made their own messages harder to hear. It’s much harder to issue warnings that nearly everything that increases contact should be avoided, if you’re okay with protests.

Health experts can and will talk about the difference between indoor and outdoor gatherings, or the separate calculations that should go into weighing risks for something important, like a protest, compared with something more frivolous, like a pool party. Still, people can see with their own eyes that groups in the thousands have gathered every day for more than a week. “Those images that we see on television can be searing and also create their own reality,” says Patrick Remington, a University of Wisconsin public health professor. “There’s no question that what you see changes your sense of what is a social norm.”

Undermining Their Own Message

Slavitt and other public health experts note that protesters can mitigate their risks by following simple steps such as wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and staying home if they feel sick. Some health departments are tweeting out exactly such guidelines. Cities such as Houston and St. Louis are giving out masks at protests. 

“In a perfect world, we’d love for people to continue social distancing and stay home, but that may not be the reality right now,” says Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents large metropolitan health departments. “It’s just really difficult, given the level of brutality and racism, to publicly say, ‘don’t do this.’”

At a news conference on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine was asked why the state was continuing to block large gatherings in some counties, even as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was participating in a protest in one of those counties. 

“The governor has always said that the people have the right to protest and demonstrate and the right to free speech,” Levine said. “Overall, we want large gatherings such as a party or a concert to be under 250 people, but we are not restricting people’s right to protest.”

Endorsing or not condemning the current wave of protests will make it harder to argue that other gatherings should be avoided or canceled. After all, the virus doesn’t make such fine distinctions. And the same precautions can be taken at other types of events.

“Knowing what I know now I would’ve protested to get in to see our family members before they died and broke all the rules,” tweeted Janice Dean, a Fox News meteorologist.

Two Crises in Collision

The anti-police protesters say they’re fighting for their lives. The American Public Health Association describes racism as a public health crisis. 

“The way I conceptualize the problem, racism and COVID-19 both pose health risks,” says Dolores Albarracin, an expert on health communication at the University of Illinois. “The protests could decrease one risk while increasing the other.”

It’s certainly true that blacks are suffering disproportionately both from the coronavirus itself and the resulting economic downturn, as well as police brutality. Perhaps the protests are a necessary expression of grief and anger, even during a pandemic.

But if that’s the case, it’s now much harder to argue to people who care passionately about other causes — or demand to exercise their normal freedom to pursue lawful activities — that they still need to wait a while due to COVID-19.

When earlier groups of protesters demanded an end to stay-at-home orders, they were sometimes greeted by health professionals in uniform who sought to make the point that lives were at stake. A nurse in Denver who stood in the middle of the street to block protest traffic drew national attention back in April. Conversely, in recent days, health professionals in scrubs have taken a knee or joined in applauding anti-police protesters.

Granted, the protesters who showed up at state capitols to complain about stay-at-home orders were arguing directly against public health measures. Still, it would be difficult and perhaps hypocritical to draw a distinction between the current protests and any other cause that people feel passionately about. In a democratic society, insisting only certain flavors of gathering will receive an official seal of approval — well, that’s the type of thing people protest against.

Risks in Protesting

Protesters this week have had to make many calculations. They know there’s a chance they can be arrested, tear-gassed or beaten, perhaps killed. They’re clearly willing to take those risks, as well as the new risk of being infected. 

“People who are interested in going to protests will balance their motivation to do so against the perceived threat from COVID-19 and their own perceived resources and personal capability to protect themselves,” says Pavel Blagov, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College in Washington, who has studied health behavior and public health messaging.

Many protesters — especially the peaceful contingents gathering in daylight — have taken precautions such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. But it’s impossible to stay six feet away from strangers when dozens or hundreds of strangers are bunched together in close quarters.

One of the earliest and most widely cited warnings as the virus began to spread in the U.S. was a war-bond parade in Philadelphia, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Within a week of the parade, 45,000 Philadelphians were infected. Within a month, more than 10,000 were dead. It's true that nearly every documented COVID-19 outbreak around the world has occurred indoors, but being outside does not provide immunity against transmission. Outdoor gatherings in the more recent past have spread infectious diseases including measles and flu.

Some health experts warn that further spread of COVID-19 as a result of the protests is inevitable. Individual protesters may feel that they have carefully weighed the risks for themselves, but a major part of the public health message has been that avoiding contact is important because of the chance of spreading infection to others. That’s a message that’s now been successfully, if perhaps inadvertently, drowned out by the anti-police protests. 

It was already a challenge for health officials to present a unified message. President Trump has sometimes made statements that contradicted his own administration’s guidelines. Every state is charting its own course. “I think it’s unfortunate we’re already having different messages and confusing messages, given that different jurisdictions within states are opening up differently,” says Juliano, of the Big Cities Health Coalition.

She says the most important thing is for people to listen to their local health officials, who have the best grasp of conditions on the ground. Still, they know their attempts to warn people about the dangers of congregating are now more difficult.

“While I support people’s right to protest, what I don’t want is their rage to cost them their lives,” George Dunlap, who chairs the Mecklenburg County, N.C., Board of Commissioners, said at a hearing on Tuesday. 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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