[guest post by Dana]
In light of the George Floyd protests, some public health officials have changed their minds about Americans being outdoors in large groups during the pandemic:
For months, public health experts have urged Americans to take every precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19—stay at home, steer clear of friends and extended family, and absolutely avoid large gatherings.
Now some of those experts are broadcasting a new message: It’s time to get out of the house and join the mass protests against racism.
It’s a message echoed by media outlets and some of the most prominent public health experts in America, like former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who loudly warned against efforts to rush reopening but is now supportive of mass protests. Their claim: If we don’t address racial inequality, it’ll be that much harder to fight Covid-19. There’s also evidence that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors, especially if people wear masks.
The experts maintain that their messages are consistent—that they were always flexible on Americans going outside, that they want protesters to take precautions and that they’re prioritizing public health by demanding an urgent fix to systemic racism.
But their messages are also confounding to many who spent the spring strictly isolated on the advice of health officials, only to hear that the need might not be so absolute after all. It’s particularly nettlesome to conservative skeptics of the all-or-nothing approach to lockdown, who point out that many of those same public health experts—a group that tends to skew liberal—widely criticized activists who held largely outdoor protests against lockdowns in April and May, accusing demonstrators of posing a public health danger. Conservatives, who felt their own concerns about long-term economic damage or even mental health costs of lockdown were brushed aside just days or weeks ago, are increasingly asking whether these public health experts are letting their politics sway their health care recommendations.
“Their rules appear ideologically driven as people can only gather for purposes deemed important by the elite central planners,” Brian Blase, who worked on health policy for the Trump administration, told me…
Some members of the medical community acknowledged they’re grappling with the U-turn in public health advice, too. “It makes it clear that all along there were trade-offs between details of lockdowns and social distancing and other factors that the experts previously discounted and have now decided to reconsider and rebalance,” said Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School. Flier pointed out that the protesters were also engaging in behaviors, like loud singing in close proximity, which CDC has repeatedly suggested could be linked to spreading the virus.
“At least for me, the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans,” he told me.
Health officials who have deemed this cause to be worth a potential health risk, yet deemed protesting to open the economy and getting back to work as not worthy of a potential health risk, have lost a tremendous amount of credibility. By making a determination that one cause is more worthy than the other, renders judgment against Americans based not upon health concerns, but based upon an ideological one instead. Why would we trust them with future decisions about public health risks?
Given protesters’ close proximity to one another and the number of unmasked protesters, it’s not unreasonable to think that we will see an increased rate of infection. Also, given the large number of black people involved in these protests, it also seems likely that, if there is an outbreak, an already hard-hit community will experience a surge over the next few weeks. Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health during the Obama administration, says that he supports the protests but recognizes the dangers of Covid-19 spreading rapidly: “We know that a low-risk area today can become a high-risk area tomorrow.”
Obviously, people across the nation believe that publicly protesting the murder of George Floyd and the problem of racial injustice outweighs any risk of becoming infected (or infecting others). Health officials are recommending that protesters self-quarantine for two weeks after coming back from a protest rally. Some public health departments are also recommending that protesters get tested for Covid-19 no later than 5-7 days after the event – even if they don’t feel sick or show symptoms.
The report leaves health experts with this question: “I think what’s lost on people is that there have been real sacrifices made during lockdown. People who couldn’t bury loved ones. Small businesses destroyed. How can a health expert look those people in the eye and say it was worth it now?”
(Of course, rallies are held outside in open spaces, which experts say poses less risk of infection than when a large group is indoors in a limited, enclosed space.)
Back in April when many Americans were publicly gathering at rallies to push for the economy to re-open, the protesters took a lot of heat for gathering during a pandemic. I was one of those critics. My objection wasn’t that they were protesting, it was the fact that they were doing so without observing social distancing measures (six foot distance from neighbor and wearing a face mask). I feel the same way about today’s protesters. If you want to protest, have at it. But at the very least, wear a mask, and try to keep a safe distance from your neighbor. As I said back in April:
… while I appreciate a healthy wariness of government overreach where civil liberties are concerned, and inconsistent foolishness from some governors, this does not change the fact that we are facing a highly contagious virus that doesn’t care about principles, political persuasions, personal philosophies, or anything that one might claim takes priority over practicing reasonable safety measures. We are not being compelled to permanently modify our behaviors. We are being asked to temporarily modify our behavior in order to help prevent further transmission of a deadly virus which is highly contagious and has wreaked havoc across the nation in a very short period of time. And it’s the sort of highly contagious virus that requires everyone to hold the line. Six feet apart and a mask when out in public. How is that a big deal? No matter what you think of government or social distancing orders put in place to help minimize the spread of the disease, let me ask you, why the isn’t your family, or your neighbor worth the extra effort?
Here are comments from Dr. Fauci regarding the protests and public health risk:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, called it a “delicate balance.”
“The reasons for demonstrating are valid, yet the demonstration itself puts one at an additional risk,” Fauci said Friday in an interview with WTOP.
Fauci said not only is it a risk to have protesters gathered in proximity to one another, the nature of demonstrations presents a health risk because people chant and yell with their mouths uncovered.
There have also been instances of protesters coughing on each other after police deployed irritants, such as tear gas or pepper spray.
“I get very concerned, as do my colleagues in public health, when they see these kinds of crowds,” Fauci said. “There certainly is a risk. I can say that with confidence.”
Compounding the risk, especially in the D.C. area, is the fact that the protests are happening in places where the coronavirus was spreading at a significant rate before the mass protests started.
“It’s a perfect setup for further spread of the virus in the sense of creating these blips which might turn into some surges,” Fauci said.
If Fauci had one piece of advice for someone who plans to go out and protest, it would be to wear a mask and keep it on the entire time.
“I’ve seen on TV, as the demonstrations heat up, people might take their masks off,” he said. “You might have situations where you would foster the spread of infection and that’s really of concern.”