Science

How Protesters Can Minimize Their Risk of Catching and Spreading the Coronavirus

A woman wearing a mask that says Black Lives Matter.
A woman wears a Black Lives Matter mask during a racial justice protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

It’s hard to say how much going to a protest increases your risk of catching the coronavirus. Being outside is much safer than being in an enclosed space with strangers, but protests aren’t exactly conducive to social distancing, particularly when violently agitated by cops. We won’t know for a few weeks whether recent demonstrations contributed to a spike in cases, and even then it may be unclear how much other activities—as many cities inch toward partial reopening—are responsible for any uptick. And as with any activity, the risk of attending a specific protest somewhat depends on how much virus is in your community at any given time, which is hard to know. But there are several things you can do to lower your risk of contributing to the spread.

Bring extra masks in case you’re exposed to tear gas or pepper spray. We all know about mask wearing by now, which is particularly helpful when it’s impossible to social distance. Masks can help protect others from you if you’re sick and don’t know it, as well as serve as a social signal that you’re invested in slowing the spread of coronavirus. Bring extra clean masks in a plastic bag (as Amnesty International suggests doing for clothes) in case of contact with tear gas or pepper spray, or if your mask otherwise becomes dirty. Also, no surprise here: Bring hand sanitizer.

Wear goggles. Goggles might not be as crucial as masks—your eyes can’t expel virus-laden droplets the way your mouth can. But if the virus lands in your eye, that is one way to get coronavirus, which is why some public health experts suggest goggles, too.

Make a sign and/or bring noise-makers.  “Yelling can spread droplets,” Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, pointed out on Twitter. It might not be realistic to go to a protest and not do some shouting, but Murray advises that bringing “signs, drums, or similar noise makers” can help.

Protest with your quarantine bubble. It’s good to have people you know with you. An open letter advocating for an anti-racist public health response to protests advises “demonstrating consistently alongside close contacts … rather than extensively intermingling with other groups.” That could look like buddying up with people you already live with, or who you are already consciously choosing to socialize with. If neither of those options work, picking a regular protest buddy to add to your quarantine bubble is better than going with someone new each time.

If you have symptoms, or if someone in your household is sick, do these things instead of protesting. If you have a fever, cough, or any of the many other symptoms of the coronavirus, err on the side of caution and stay home. Also take into account whether you’ve been hanging out with other people or going to work, since you could be asymptomatic. You can still contribute to the demonstrations, this open letter points out. Other ways to help include donating to bail funds (here’s a directory by state), or sourcing masks and hand sanitizer for people in your community who are protesting.

Get tested after you protest (or at least quarantine). If you make protesting the one risk you take in the next few weeks, that could help prevent you from spreading the virus if you do catch it.