On Thursday afternoon, not long before the rain started, a crowd gathered in Jefferson Square Park in downtown Louisville. They’ve been here every afternoon, protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
As people come up to give speeches and lead chants, Rosie Henderson sits at the ready.
“I’m wiping down the mics with disinfecting wipes,” said Henderson. “We’ve been as safe as we can, so nobody can say that we just out here protesting and not trying to be safe.”
Henderson has been out at the protests every evening, and she’s appointed herself chief safety stickler. She’s making sure everyone has masks and hand sanitizer.
“If we’re going to be out here, we’ve got to be safe,” she said. “Because the coronavirus is real and it is going up every day.”
For nearly two months, downtown Louisville was a ghost town, as businesses and restaurants closed in an attempt to combat the spread of coronavirus. Since last Thursday night, though, things have looked very different, with thousands of protesters streaming into downtown each night.
A week ago, public health experts were anxious at the idea of restaurants reopening at one-third capacity, and allowing backyard barbecues. As these protests have spread across the country, the equation has changed for many — but the virus has not.
No matter the political impetus, mass gatherings remain very risky, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
Adalja says the good news is that the protests are outside, which seems to minimize risk of infection. But protests bring their own specific concerns.
“The protests themselves often involve chanting or yelling,” said Adalja. That “creates more droplets that emanate from a person’s body, making it more likely that if a person is harboring the virus, the virus will find someone to infect.”
Adalja is also concerned because, so far, coronavirus is hitting Black communities disproportionately hard. He’s not just worried about the protesters, but also who they might be interacting with when they go home — elderly family members or the immunocompromised.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear addressed this concern on Sunday.
“If you’ve been in a number of these demonstrations around a lot of people, make sure that you wait some time before being around seniors and those with medical conditions that may make them vulnerable,” he said.
He encouraged protesters to wear masks and try to social distance. Louisville public health director Sarah Moyer has asked protesters to try to get tested soon.
These protests are coming at a particularly vulnerable time for the pandemic response. States, including Kentucky, have just begun to open up, meaning everyone is likely expanding their number of contacts, even without meaning to. And trying to contact trace after a protest like this will be extremely challenging.
“People don’t actually know who they’re around,” said Adalja. “There’s so many people interacting with each other there, and then there may be some reticence on people’s parts to talk about the people that were there.”
And it’s not just the protesters. The riot gear police officers wore earlier in the week includes face shields, but since law enforcement has backed off of that degree of policing, few masks are in use.
On Thursday afternoon, several police officers walked around Jefferson Square Park, unmasked, interacting with protesters. LMPD did not respond to a request for comment about mask protocol during the protests.
And then there are the so-called non-lethal crowd control tools police are using to disperse protesters, including tear gas and pepper balls.
“When you call something non-lethal you give the impression that they are benign, but the fact is, they can cause immediate harm and long-term harm,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser with Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University.
Tear gas is an aerosolized powder that comes from a canister shot by police. The canister itself can be dangerous, and the released powder causes temporary blindness, burning sensations on the skin, extreme pain and can cause people to cough and sneeze uncontrollably.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are asking people to wear masks and avoid touching their faces and mouths, but that’s exactly what these chemical irritants force people to do.
“You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that this is the exact wrong thing that you want to have happen at a time when you have a pandemic spread by aerosols,” Mishori said.
But even for some health workers, the risk is worth it. Emergency room nurse Katie Blunk has worn her scrubs to the protests as a symbol that nurses stand with Black Lives Matter. As a nurse, she’s aware of the threat of coronavirus, but that wasn’t going to stop her.
“I mean, honestly, I think it’s about balancing risks,” she said. “Ultimately, my risk of being here is minimal compared to the risk of being Black in America every day.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by more than 1,000 public health experts who signed an open letter that said these protests should not be shut down on health grounds.
“As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” the letter said. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”
That’s how 21-year-old Justin Cox feels. He’s worried about coronavirus, but as a young black man, he said police brutality seems more urgent. He said many people are wearing masks, but it’s not a big topic of conversation at the protests.
“That to me shows how powerful what we’re doing is, the fact that a global pandemic is kinda on the backburner of the news right now,” he said.
Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.