The Protests Will Spread the Coronavirus

The country should expect a spike in less than two weeks, public-health experts say.

Coronavirus particles and scenes of protest
Tasos Katopodis / Getty / The Atlantic

The wave of mass protests across the United States will almost certainly set off new chains of infection for the novel coronavirus, experts say.

The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas). It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.

As such, for the past several days, the virus has found new environments in which to spread across the United States. At least 75 cities have seen widespread demonstrations and social unrest as Americans have gathered to protest systemic racism and the killing of George Floyd, the black man who died last week under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Dozens of cities imposed curfews over the weekend amid widespread looting. It has been among the most turbulent moments of societal upheaval in the U.S. since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The pandemic and unrest together have trapped the country in a bind. The demonstrations oppose police brutality. But peaceful, masked protesters—and the journalists covering them—have sometimes been met with an overly aggressive police response.

“I don’t think there’s a question of whether there will be spikes in cases in 10 to 14 days,” Mark Shrime, a public-health researcher at Harvard, told me. “With so many protests happening, that are getting so much bigger, I don’t think it’s a question of if, but when and where.”

Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, agrees. “All things considered, there’s little doubt that these protests will translate into increased risk of transmission for COVID-19,” she told me by email.

Yet that risk does not lead Majumder to oppose the protests. “I personally believe that these particular protests—which demand justice for black and brown bodies that have been brutalized by the police—are a necessary action,” she said. “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.” Even the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed black people disproportionately, Majumder told me. While about 13 percent of Americans are black, a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths where the victim’s race is known have befallen black people, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global-health law at Georgetown University, also told me she believed that the protests were justifiable, even amid the public-health crisis. She drew a difference between these protests, against police brutality, and the protests earlier this spring, which opposed mask mandates and social-distancing rules. At the very least, she said, many protesters this weekend were wearing masks, reducing the risk of transmission to the community.

International law would also understand the Floyd-inspired protests differently than it would the anti-mask protests, Phelan said, because it places a premium on the use of civil rights to keep governments accountable. “These protests are currently the primary channel to seek accountability for the governance systems that have led to extrajudicial killings and police violence, but also for the disproportionate death from COVID-19 experienced by black and brown Americans.”

Protesting is protected by constitutional and international law, and yet, at this moment, inescapably dangerous. People who wish to protest should focus first on mitigating their risk of passing the virus along to someone else, the experts told me. Protesters should wear a mask over their mouth and nose to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. “There’s probably evidence—though that evidence is weak—that masking protects me, but there’s more evidence that masking protects you,” Shrime said.

Since chanting seems to spread the virus, Majumder recommends that protesters use noisemakers, drums, and written signs. She also recommended that protesters carry shatterproof goggles and a saline spritz, in case they are pepper-sprayed. “Soothing the irritant with a sterile solution can reduce coughing and sneezing, which are some of the major pathways through which the novel coronavirus is spread,” she said.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 rests not with protesters, but with the police and government officials, Phelan said: “The state is the one with the duty to protect public health.” Police departments therefore must drop certain tactics that they might normally adopt for crowd-control reasons, she said. “If they are channeling crowds into tight spaces for security and control; if they’re removing their masks; if they’re preventing protesters from using drums or amplified music instead of using their voices, which we know are a vector for transmission; or if they’re arresting protesters and holding them in jail … these potential activities that police are using for security and control of a protest might in themselves increase the risk of transmission of COVID.”

Simply canceling the protests themselves, Phelan added, would not be a legally legitimate—or particularly constitutional—move. In the 1960s and ’70s, it became clear that governments around the world were using the pretext of public health and safety to limit or violate civil rights. So international jurists developed a set of ideas, called the “Siracusa Principles”—named for the city in Italy where the jurists convened—about when some human rights could be violated or restricted to protect others. Inherent in those rules is that the right to assembly cannot be limited in a discriminatory way and that any restriction must be based on evidence. “Public health is about minimizing risks, and there are other risks we are thinking about minimizing with these protests, beyond COVID,” Phelan said.

If the protests cause a spike in COVID-19 infections, the data may not fully convey that factor. Minnesota, the epicenter of the unrest, is already a hot spot for coronavirus infection. There were more COVID-19 deaths on average in Minnesota this week than in any previous week of the pandemic, and the state’s hospitalization rate has never been higher since the pandemic began. Because of lags in reporting the data, and because several days pass before someone infected by the virus begins to experience symptoms, those cases and hospitalizations almost entirely represent people who were infected by the virus before the protests began.

It could be hard to suss out a signal from the protests in other parts of the country. On a regional basis, new positive cases have increased across the Southeast, the Southwest, and the West in the past few weeks, according to data collected by the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Cases have significantly declined in the Northeast. It might also ultimately be hard to separate the signal of these protests from the signal of many states and counties relaxing some social-distancing rules.

“If you track the daily [COVID-19] cases in the U.S., they have been going down,” Shrime, the public-health researcher, said. “But it already seems like that decrease itself is slowing, and if you look at the worldwide cases of COVID—they slowed for a bit, but now they’ve shot up. Every one of the last three days, we’ve had the most diagnosed new COVID cases since the pandemic began.”

“We’ve kind of decided this pandemic is over,” he told me. “And it’s really not.”