Don’t blame police protests for spiking COVID-19 cases

You can blame people partying, though

Thousands of protestors marched to the Georgia Capitol June 15, 2020, to protest police brutality and voter supression in the wake of several high-profile killings. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

People in Minneapolis erupted in anger at the video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, as they should have, but the large public demonstrations of anger seemed certain to make worse the apocalyptic moment we had already entered.  When the anger out of Minneapolis spread across the country, many of us who understood the necessity of the protests nonetheless braced ourselves for future reports that those protests had accelerated the spread of the novel coronavirus. And our country had already proved itself ill-equipped to contain the virus’ spread.

There has indeed been a dramatic increase of U.S. COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and to people who are disapproving of the protesters and their calls to defund or abolish police, those protests are at least partially to blame for the spike in positive tests and hospitalizations.

However, public health officials across the country, including some in Louisiana, have said that that the protests did not trigger the state’s spike in COVID-19 cases. Their assessment is validated by a working paper published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The five authors of “Black Lies Matter Protests, Social Distancing, and COVID-19” find that the “predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.” Those of us who feared the protests would worsen public health made the mistake of assuming, those researchers find, that “the most visible portion of the population” is “the primary driver of the outcome of interest.”

In other words, we guessed that how the virus spread during a time of protest would be mostly determined by the behavior of the people protesting when, according to the researchers, the behavior of people who weren’t protesting has had the greater effect.

Looking at data from 315 of the country’s biggest cities, the researchers, whose paper hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, found that “net stay-at-home behavior increased following protest onset”  — either because those who weren’t protesting thought traffic would be too difficult to navigate, thought their favorite businesses or restaurants would be closed because of the protests or thought they might get hurt.

Each of the 10 most populated American cities has at least 1 million people, and the researchers didn’t collect data from any city with fewer than 100,000 residents.  If the protests of a relatively small number of people encourages a substantial portion of everybody else to stay off the streets, then it’s easy to accept the researchers’ finding that more people were staying home after the protests started than before. It appears, in fact, that the protests did what health officials and gubernatorial stay-at-home orders could not:  convince people who are cavalier about the viral threat that it wasn’t the right time to go out.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, health director for the city of New Orleans, said at a June 24 news conference that she’d seen no evidence that organized protests had led to the increasing number of cases in the city and that officials at the Louisiana Department of Health hadn’t seen such for the state. “Neither they nor we have identified any clusters related to protests,” Avegno said.

“I would say that is a very strong case for the effectiveness of wearing masks,” she said, “as the vast majority of folks that I saw in those pictures were wearing masks and trying to physical distance.”

New Orleans is just like the rest of the country in that regard, she said: Cities that had a large percentage of protesters wearing masks haven’t been able to attribute any increase in COVID-19 cases to those protests.

Given the relative youth of those protesting, the writers of the paper say it’s possible that many of them did contract the virus, remained asymptomatic and never got tested.  But Louisiana officials say young people are a main reason the state’s COVID-19 numbers are increasing. At his Thursday, July 2 news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards said almost half the new cases of COVID-19 were in people younger than 30.

If young people are driving up the numbers, and the numbers can’t be attributed to those marching against racism and police brutality, then that leaves people who, according to multiple media reports, have been gathering for fun and mostly ignoring public health recommendations when they do.

By now, everybody has heard those recommendations:  Curtail your social activities, practice social distancing, wear masks that cover your mouth and nostrils – for the public’s sake. Even so, people who are bar hopping and attending large parties haven’t generally been accused of making a political statement.

But if they’re gathering to party during a pandemic, then they are making a statement. They’re protesters, too. Only, they’re not protesting police brutality, which can and has been deadly; they’re protesting commonsense public health measures that could keep themselves and others safe.