Widespread Protests Could Lead to Surge in New COVID-19 Cases

It’s important to take steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 while engaging in peaceful protests

police car with demonstrations in distance

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on June 1, 2020

Thousands of Americans in more than 100 cities across the country have taken to the streets in recent days, engaging in mass demonstrations. The widespread protests were prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed on May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer.

Officials warn that these large-scale gatherings could lead to a resurgence of COVID-19, or a second wave of new infections.

People of color in the United States have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths far surpassing those of whites.

Financial woes adding fuel to the fire
The economic toll of the pandemic has likely contributed to intense fear and frustration across the country. Overall, more than 40 million Americans have filed for first-time unemployment benefits since March when the pandemic forced widespread closures of schools, restaurants and other businesses, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. As of May 28, one in four U.S. workers has filed for unemployment insurance.

Some economists predict the May unemployment rate, which is expected to be released on June 5, could reach as high as 20 percent. If so, it would be the highest jobless rate since the Great Depression, when unemployment surged to 25 percent.

In April, the unemployment rate rose to 14.7 percent—up from 4.4 percent. When broken down by race, however, unemployment for black people reached 16.7 percent, compared to 14.2 percent among whites.

How civil unrest could affect pandemic control
Several cities imposed curfews over the last weekend in May amid widespread looting. As of June 1, nearly two dozen states have activated their National Guards to respond to the unfolding events, according to the National Guard Bureau.

While exercising their right to express themselves, many protestors have been wearing masks or facial coverings as well as gloves. Still, public health officials warn that crowded conditions as well as chanting or shouting could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and lead to a spike in new cases.

Meanwhile, the police response to protests, which may include containing crowds in confined areas, could also complicate the pandemic response. Using pepper spray, which irritates the eyes, skin and upper airways and can trigger coughing and gagging, could also create conditions that could worsen the spread of COVID-19.

Like the flu and some other respiratory viruses, coronaviruses typically spread among people through close personal contact, usually within six feet.    

COVID-19 spreads mainly through contaminated respiratory droplets that are emitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes and possibly when infected people breathe or speak. If you touch a contaminated surface then touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you can also become infected.

City officials want protestors to get tested
Political leaders across the country—from New York to Denver to Atlanta—have urged protestors to get tested for COVID-19.

"If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during a May 31 news briefing. "There's still a pandemic in America that's killing black and brown people at higher numbers."

Contact tracing—a decades-old disease control strategy—has been identified as one of the keys to curbing the pandemic, re-opening local economies and getting Americans back to work.

The technique involves the careful questioning of a person diagnosed with an infectious disease and tirelessly tracking down anyone they had contact with—family, housemates, friends, co-workers, healthcare providers—up to 48 hours before they developed symptoms.

Mass gatherings and protests threaten to undermine these efforts and make containing the pandemic and slowing the number of new cases much more difficult.

Reducing the risk for COVID-19 spread
Although currently there is no vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19, one of the best ways to avoid exposure to SARS-CoV-2 is to just stay home and only go out in public when necessary.

If you do leave home, practice social distancing—keep at least six feet of space between you and others. U.S. and state health officials are also advising Americans—whether they have symptoms or not—to wear nonmedical coverings, such as scarves or cloth masks, over their noses and mouths when going out in public.

For people who plan to protest, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene offers the following additional tips to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19:

  • Wear goggles or other eye protection.
  • Drink water to stay well-hydrated.
  • Don’t shout or scream. Instead, use signs or noise makers.
  • Try to protest in smaller groups and keep adequate space—at least six feet—between you and others.  

Other ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time.  If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer than contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching any part of your face, including your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with an unused tissue. If you don’t have a tissue, use your upper sleeve or elbow—not your hands.
Article sources open article sources

The Atlantic. “The Protests Will Spread the Coronavirus.”
Elizabeth Hlavinka. “COVID-19 Killing African Americans at Shocking Rates.” MedPage Today. May 1, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.”
Greg Millett, et al. “Assessing Differential Impacts of COVID-19 on Black Communities [preprint].” Posted on medRxiv May 2020.
U.S. Department of Labor. “Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims.”
San José State University. “The Depression of the 1930's and Its Origins or Causes.”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Unemployment rate rises to record high 14.7 percent in April 2020.”
U.S. National Guard. “Guard members in 23 states, D.C. called up in response to civil unrest.”
Society of Hospital Medicine. “Mass protests could cause COVID-19 outbreaks.”
U.S. Department of Justice. “Pepper Spray’s Effects on a Suspect’s Ability to Breathe.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus: Transmission.”
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Plan to protest? Here are tips to reduce the risk of spreading #COVID19.”

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