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More than three weeks after hundreds of thousands of Americans started taking to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, anticipated surges in COVID-19 cases have not shown up in the cities with the biggest protests.
Some commentators are already speculating that the lack of protest-related spikes in coronavirus cases means that social distancing rules are not so important if people are outside and wear masks — as many protesters did. Slate went so far as to suggest that “a much wider range of outdoor activities — sports events, beaches, swimming pools, playgrounds, and so forth — could be safely permitted much sooner than currently scheduled.”
But some experts say that leaping to this conclusion could be a serious mistake. “I do think it’s good news that we haven’t seen enormous outbreaks at this time,” Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed News. “But everything that we’ve learned from the epidemiology of this virus tells us that people who are in close proximity with people who are infected are at risk.”
What’s more, a new analysis based on cell-phone tracking data suggests a surprising reason for the lack of protest-related spikes in COVID-19: In the cities with large protests, the wider population actually spent more time at home during the demonstrations — suggesting that any surge caused by virus transmission at the protests themselves would have been countered by an increase in social distancing among the rest of the cities’ populations.
While experts consulted by BuzzFeed News agreed that wearing masks and being outside may have reduced the risk of viral transmission at the protests, they pointed to other possible factors as well. Many of the protesters were young, for example, meaning that new infections that occurred while they were demonstrating would be less likely to cause severe disease and show up in official case counts. And even though hundreds of thousands participated in the protests, that’s still a relatively small number compared to the total population of the cities involved — so it might be hard to notice transmission of the coronavirus at the protests.
“The fact is that we will just never know for sure, because there’s too many moving parts,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, told BuzzFeed News.
The surprising finding that the protests caused an overall increase in social distancing in the cities in which they occurred comes from an analysis released by the company Safegraph, conducted by researchers at San Diego State University, the University of Colorado, Denver, and Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Although Safegraph’s aggregated phone-tracking data didn’t allow the researchers to follow individuals, they were able to relate the timing of the protests to the extent to which the population of cities as a whole stayed at home.
“You need to understand what’s going on with all different parts of the population,” Andrew Friedson, a health economist at the University of Colorado, Denver, and one of the researchers behind the study, told BuzzFeed News. “Many of these cities have populations in the millions.”
Friedson and his colleagues found that people in large cities that didn’t have protests, such as Aurora, Colorado, and Irving, Texas, moved around more during the unrest than people in cities that did. And in cities with protests, stay-at-home behavior increased after the unrest started. Curfew orders couldn’t fully account for this change, the researchers found, suggesting that many people made a choice to stay at home to avoid getting caught up in clashes between police and protesters.
Some cities set up “pop up” COVID-19 testing stations for protesters as the unrest took off. The initial results from this testing support the idea that relatively little transmission of the coronavirus happened at Black Lives Matter protests. In Seattle, less than 1% of those tested were positive for COVID-19, according to a statement from the mayor’s office released on June 12. In Boston, about 2.5% of protesters who were tested came back positive for the coronavirus — roughly in line with numbers for the city as a whole. And in Minneapolis the figure was 1.8%, Wired reported last week.
Still, experts warn that large gatherings of people pose a risk of a “superspreader” event, where a single individual infects a large number of others — such as those that happened at a church in South Korea in the early stages of its outbreak, and at a funeral in Albany, Georgia, on February 29.
“There still could be a superspreader event from protests we haven’t seen yet, given other cases,” Gerardo Chowell, an epidemiologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, told BuzzFeed News. But he noted that most of the known superspreader events have taken place at indoor gatherings.
Even though the Black Lives Matter protests don’t seem to have triggered a spike in coronavirus transmission, new cases are now surging in states across the South and West of the country. For the most part, these increases started before the protests began, and seem to have been driven by efforts to reopen states’ economies and public gatherings that happened around Memorial Day weekend in late May.
“Most of the timing for these spikes, like in Arizona, fits the timeline of relaxation of restrictions and reduction in social distancing efforts,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ Coronavirus Task Force, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Those surges are now driving up the number of new cases for the US as a whole, which had been slowly declining since early April, alarming public health experts.
“The fact that overall cases in the United States are going the wrong way is deeply concerning when we’re 5 months into the first wave,” Howard Koh of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, formerly assistant secretary of health in the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t have a national coordinated strategy right now. We have 50 states moving in 50 different directions.”