As protests sparked by George Floyd’s death have taken over streets across the U.S., thousands of people have emerged from coronavirus isolation to march against police brutality. But though it’s no longer the number-one news story, the virus hasn’t gone anywhere—new cases are now declining in many of the first hot spots, like New York, but they are increasing in many regions, and on average nearly a thousand Americans still die from COVID-19 every day.
This has led to the worry that the protest movement will cause a spike in cases. Protesters, of course, are not ignorant of this risk. Instead, they have simply found themselves caught between two serious threats to human life.
Public health experts acknowledge this tension. “Police or vigilante murder of persons of color must be considered a public health priority,” says Sten H. Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health. “To see a policeman murder a defenseless black man is reminding us again of the structural racism rife in U.S. society—protesting is a natural response.”
To some observers, this carries at least a hint of hypocrisy—that public health experts who had discouraged all activity outside of the home were only changing their analysis for political reasons. But there are reasons to think that gathering en masse outdoors may not be quite as dangerous as was believed way back in March. As our understanding of the virus has evolved, it seems that the virus is more difficult to spread outdoors, and simple masks may be much more effective than previously thought.
None of this is to say that health experts aren’t concerned. “We in public health would want more physical distancing than I have seen on television, universal mask use (again, have not seen this), and aggressive hand and face hygiene,” says Vermund. “I am concerned that even though the events have been outdoors, with less risk than indoors, there could be transmissions from such large congregations.”
There are also risks from the police response to the protests. Tear gas can raise the danger of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19; arrest and being crowded indoors might also spread the virus. Vermund called indeterminate incarceration “perhaps the greatest threat of coronavirus transmission.”
It could be weeks before we know whether the protests bring a surge in coronavirus cases, but protesters have had to weigh these risks by themselves. We spoke to four people about their thoughts when it comes to the health uncertainties involved while protesting and why, to them, it’s a risk worth taking.
Justina Sharp, 22, Los Angeles, CA
I was and still am worried about coronavirus. If I'm being honest, it held me back from attending a protest earlier–not just because I was worried about getting sick but because I have been pretty heavily isolated with my partner for several weeks. Just the idea of that many people in one place made me extremely anxious. Prior to yesterday, I could count every person I've had within six feet of me that wasn't my family on one hand. I took every precaution I could.
At the protest, it felt like people were extremely aware, and most were wearing masks and spreading out as much as possible. I don't think anyone was ever closer than three feet and no one without a mask. There were also protesters driving along the route handing out masks, gloves, sanitizer, and cold water, which could have contributed to the overall preparation of the crowd. One passed me with a sign that said, "Racism is killing black people, don't let corona do it, too." I'm still thinking about that. You know who wasn't wearing masks? Police officers–even though thousands of people were passing within inches of them as they pressed closer and closer to the margins of the march.
Ke'Aira McDowell, 20, Decatur, GA
It's been an emotional experience. Being part of a crowd of thousands of people who are all feeling the same kind of pain and anger and passion is honestly indescribable. It's amazing and gives me so much hope for what's to come.
I was arrested while trying to provide first-aid to my fellow protesters when curfew hit and the Atlanta Police, along with the National Guard, started tear gassing us, shooting rubber bullets, and essentially trapping us.
I definitely thought twice before going to the first protest Friday night. I had been pretty vocal about the need to stay home and take COVID-19 seriously, so it felt sort of wrong for me to be going against everything I had been saying the last couple months. But George Floyd's death for me and so many others was really difficult to see and I found myself having trouble focusing on work and other things going on in my life because my mind kept going back to it. At a certain point, I just decided that I would put on my mask, try my hardest to maintain six feet from the people around me, and join the protest. This just felt too important. And I think the fact that so many people have showed up despite COVID-19 is proof of how desperately we all want justice for George.
I almost expected to see a lot of people not wearing masks at the protests and ignoring most of the guidelines the CDC has recommended, but nearly every person I've seen at every protest I've gone to has been wearing a mask. And it's also shocked me a bit that while we march, we really do give each other several feet of space. We spread out, taking up the entire street and both sidewalks. You can tell it's the back of most people's minds.
Joey Hamer, 30, Chicago, IL
I'm protesting because I can. I'm healthy, I'm active, I'm young, and I owe it to every single black person to get out there and show my support. It's been an emotional rollercoaster for me–and that's also a sign of my privilege. Every day brings new stories, situations, and suffering from friends and strangers that I have been completely unaware of.
[The virus] honestly had minimal effect on my decision to protest. I've done my part by following CDC protocol diligently. I thankfully can work from home, get groceries from home, and do most everything I was doing before the virus without disruption. After the death of George Floyd, I knew that I could also support from home, but the impact is limited. That’s not to say it’s ineffective–there are so many things you can do from home–but the power of people coming together physically is unparalleled and I knew I had to be a part of it. I would regret it forever if I didn’t go out.
Most people were wearing masks—it must've been 90-95% of people wearing masks, potentially more. Groups of people were handing out masks to protect everyone. That helped me feel safe.
Jason Kruta, 30, San Francisco, CA
I have been social distancing very strictly since the beginning of March and planned to do so indefinitely even though the city was beginning to open back up. As much as it has been difficult to go without seeing family and friends—I actually had to cancel my wedding—and be stuck at home practically all day every day, it has felt like a necessary sacrifice for the greater good. There is an overwhelming moral obligation to protest if you are able to do so, and my decision to put myself at risk is also one I am making for the greater good. Although I know COVID-19 has infected and killed all types of people, I am relatively young and healthy and do not have risk factors.
I don't recall seeing a single person out of the thousands protesting today who wasn't wearing a mask. There were also folks going around with carts of food, water, and masks for people to take. Due to the size of the crowd it was difficult to maintain six feet distance at all times. I saw some dear friends for the first time in months and we all kept our distance instead of hugging.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
A conversation with author and University of Pennsylvania professor Daniel Q. Gillion about the history of protests in America and how they've inspired actual policy change.
Originally Appeared on GQ