As protests continue around the city in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, experts and government officials continue to worry that large crowds could lead to a large spike in positive cases of COVID-19.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said, earlier this month, they were “wear[ing] masks, thank God, but there's no social distancing. You look at the encounters with the police, the police are right in their face, they're right in the face of the police.”
Boston University epidemiologist Ellie Murray says that those interactions where police officers are right in protesters' faces may be the problem.
“From the footage that I've seen, the activities of the police seem to be one of the main sources of increased transmission risk at these protests,” Murray said. “They are, as you say, sort of getting into people's faces, a large group of police surrounding individuals.”
This transmission risk comes from not wearing face masks and getting into close contact with protesters, such as pushing or direct touching, she said. There have also been reports that police have confiscated arrestees’ masks.
Mayor Bill De Blasio is also worried about a possible spike in new infections, saying, “Everyone needs to have a face covering on; everyday New Yorkers, protesters, police, everyone needs to have a face covering on.”
But throughout weeks of protests, numerous officers have been observed without face masks.
“They’re supposed to wear masks,” NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker admitted during a City Council hearing last week.
Instances where police are kettling protesters, crowding them into a small area, can also increase transmission risks since people are unable to socially distance as they would if protesting without police interaction, Murray added.
Although she believes police interactions are the main concern for COVID transmissions right now, she said protesters can take actions to protect themselves and others.
“If you're at a more peaceful protest, wear a mask while maintaining physical distance,” Murray said. “Yelling can spread droplets further and so being more like maybe eight or 10 feet [away] is good.”
Another idea: "keep any interactions with individuals as short as possible.”
Murray added that protesters should carry and use hand sanitizer and keep as much physical distance as possible from other protesters. She also suggested that replacing yelling with noisemakers and drums could reduce the potential of passing on or catching COVID-19 through saliva droplets.
She also recommends that everyone consider who lives with them and who they come into contact with regularly before attending a protest.
”It's important to recognize that for a lot of people, even if they themselves may be healthy, they may be primary caregivers for people who really can't afford to get sick and thinking about who are those people that you need to be in contact with regularly,” Murray said. “Can you or they afford the potential risk of getting infected?”
At the same time, Murray recognizes that COVID-19 is inseparable from the issues of racial inequality that people are protesting against. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are the most overrepresented group for COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“A lot of this oppression and structural racism that is leading to these protests is also a thing that was fueling the higher rates of COVID that we were seeing in Black communities,” Murray said. “I think it's important to acknowledge that these protests are calling for an improvement in something that's an important public health crisis.”
Not only are more Black people catching COVID-19 due to structural inequalities, she pointed out many who have it are also not receiving the proper care or have healthcare providers who don't believe the severity of their symptoms.
“That is kind of an example of how racism and oppression can lead to really poor public health outcomes,” Murray said. “There’s an aspect of these protests of not only the fact that there was some really serious police violence happening [in earlier weeks], but also a lot of these protesters are likely to know somebody who has had COVID or who has died from COVID.”
Murray proposed that local governments regulate what police are allowed to do during protests—the main issue being the use of respiratory irritants like tear gas, which can make people more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.
“Those are extremely dangerous things to use in a pandemic situation,” Murray said. Tear gas and pepper spray increase protesters coughing, she explained, which will lead to transmission. It will also reduce social distancing as people come to the aid of those who have been tear-gassed or sprayed.
Another idea, Murray offered, is to reduce the number of officers at the protests. She said that assigning so many NYPD officers to the demonstrations reduces their ability to socially distance, and may not allow for the recommended 14-day quarantine period after possible exposure.
“If the entire police force is out at the protest, then obviously, it would not be feasible to have them all quarantine for 14 days afterward. But, if they don't quarantine them, there's potential to transmit infection, beyond people who were at the protest to people who weren't,” Murray said.
She said that the lack of government regulation will further the pandemic, harming the people who are protesting on the streets now.
“I think all of those things are probably fueling these protests, so I think there's a sort of interplay between public health, racism, and police violence—one more aspect of that vicious cycle,” Murray said.