Public health officials, as well as mayor and governors, are publicly expressing their fears that the massive protests over the killing of George Floyd will lead to a surge in coronavirus cases across the country. This fear comes at a time when many cities are starting to tentatively reopen for business in a country that has seen more cases and deaths than any other. As of Sunday, almost 105,000 people in the United States had died from the coronavirus.
One of those to speak up about her concern was Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said her worry was at least partly rooted in the fact that the coronavirus has already been disproportionately affecting communities of color. “There is still a pandemic in America that’s killing black and brown people at higher numbers,” Bottoms said as she urged protesters to get tested. “I’m extremely concerned we are seeing mass gatherings,” she added during a CNN interview. “We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”
Officials expressed concern that although some of the protesters were wearing masks at the protests, that was not the norm. And it wasn’t just demonstrators as footage from the protests often showed law enforcement officers going mask-free. In addition, demonstrators were often in close proximity to one another. “There’s no question that, when you put hundreds or thousands of people together in close proximity, when we have got this virus all over the streets … it’s not healthy,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said. “Two weeks from now across America, we’re going to find out whether or not this gives us a spike and drives the numbers back up again or not.”
Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, joined her Atlanta counterpart in calling on protesters to get tested. “I’m concerned that we had mass gatherings on our streets when we just lifted a stay at home order and what that could mean for spikes in coronavirus cases later,” Bowser said. “I’m so concerned about it that I’m 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.”
Protesters said that while they are aware of the risks, the cause they are fighting for is more important. “It’s not OK that in the middle of a pandemic we have to be out here risking our lives,” Spence Ingram said after marching in Atlanta. “But I have to protest for my life and fight for my life all the time.”
Health experts noted that there are certain things protesters could do to protect themselves and those around them during the protests, chief among them wearing a mask. “This can be done in a relatively safe manner by trying to distance yourself and wearing those masks,” CNN medical analyst Dr. James Phillips said. Dr. Theodore Long, who is leading New York City’s contact tracing efforts, agreed with that advice. “We strongly encourage anybody who is out in the protests to wear a mask, practice proper hand hygiene and to the extent possible, socially distance, though we know that’s not always going to be feasible,” he said.