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 is infected by the virus and 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.”