Protesters applaud during a rally against racial inequality at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on June 10, 2020.

Reuters

Black Lives Matter protests have been ongoing across the country for three weeks.

So far, they haven’t been tied to any increased spread of the coronavirus.

Experts say there are still risks to attending protests, especially for people in vulnerable groups.

But being outside, wearing masks, and keeping a safe distance from others are all actions that help prevent virus spread.

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The coronavirus is still thriving in communities across the United States. 

Cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, are on the rise in nearly half of US states — an indication that the nation is nowhere near finished with its first wave of this pandemic.

This data is emerging following three weeks of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s necessarily a related trend. 

Instead, much of the current uptick appears to spring from an American business reopening that’s being rushed along too quickly, with deadly consequences.

Black Lives Matter protests have continued for three weeks, enough time to incubate the virus, but “so far so good.”Protesters demonstrate the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial on June 9, 2020, in Washington DC.

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, which was more than three weeks ago.

Because the coronavirus incubation period is typically about two weeks or less, enough time has elapsed since protesters first took to the streets — raising their voices and lifting their heels for human rights — that hospitals and COVID-19 testing centers might’ve seen some of the first new cases tied to the protests, if there was rampant viral spread. 

“The hope would be that it’s really not contributing to the spread,” Dr. Dale Okorodudu, the founder of Black Men in White Coats, told Insider of the nationwide protests.

But “just from a pure practical standpoint, you would imagine that the numbers would go up,” he said.

So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case, despite all the big crowds.

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In major cities including New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Chicago, where numerous protests have taken place in recent weeks, numbers of new coronavirus cases are actually declining, despite widespread testing. Coronavirus cases are also trending downward in Minnesota, the state where Floyd was killed, and where the protests started.

Meanwhile, across many southern states where protests were not as prevalent — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma — coronavirus infection rates and hospitalizations are trending towards new all-time highs.

“I want to watch it closely for another week or so, but so far so good, our numbers are looking good,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley told Fox29 on Friday, when asked about recent protests in that city. “I did notice that most of the people at protests were wearing masks, and for the most part, they were keeping a distance.”

That mask and space strategy could be helping keep the protesters virus-free.

“I wouldn’t go as far to say that going outdoors into a mass crowd of anybody is relatively safe,” Dr. Cedric Dark, an emergency physician in Houston, told Insider, but he said that extra layer of protection helps. “If you’re going to be outside protesting, at least wear a mask.” 

One study released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that widespread mask-wearing in hard-hit New York City during a three week period in April and May prevented 66,000 COVID-19 infections there.

That’s something many anti-lockdown protesters, who rallied in states from Washington to Minnesota and Florida this spring, didn’t do. Those relatively small, isolated protests — also largely held outside — haven’t been tied to coronavirus outbreaks in any meaningful ways so far, either.

Both of these protesting scenarios, whether masked or unmasked, point to a clear piece of coronavirus advice that’s been touted by the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, as well as independent infectious disease experts around the globe: get outside. Because it’s a lot harder for this virus to fester out in fresh air and sun. 

This virus thrives indoors, not outdoors Protesters march through the streets of Manhattan, New York, Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Associated Press

Many scientific studies about coronavirus transmission outdoors are still under peer review, but a Chinese group of researchers noted that among 318 separate coronavirus outbreaks in that country, only one was spread outside. Another study done in Japan found that the odds of COVID-19 transmitting in a closed environment were nearly 19 times higher than out in fresh air. 

This is why an indoor wedding attended by more than 350 people in Jordan bred the virus readily, as did an indoor choir practice in Washington state, full of singers spewing potentially virus-laden pieces of spit around the room. Ventilation systems can also play a role in this viral dance. A study of how the coronavirus permeated a restaurant in Guangzhou, China last January showed how one patients’ infection spread to 10 people from three different family groups while they were all out to eat, presumably with some help from the restaurants’ air conditioning system.

So it makes sense that an indoor political rally with lots of chanting and shouting could be a dangerous place for the virus to pass from person to person, while day drinking out on the sidewalk, at a distance, may not be so risky after all. 

A new report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which studied coronavirus cases across Japan from January to April, found (again) that coronavirus clusters tend to sprout up when people breathe on each other in close proximity, including when they are “singing at karaoke parties, cheering at clubs, having conversations in bars, and exercising in gymnasiums.” 

“It’s still a little bit early to conclude that there was no transmission from those protests,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist and mask researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told Insider via email. “But my expectation is that there would be little transmission, because the activities were mostly outdoors, where COVID does not spread so well.” 

Bars, restaurants, offices, gyms, and homes are great places to transmit the virus People work on a “Black Lives Matter” mural on Fulton St in the Bedford – Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, on June 14, 2020.

Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images

Other activities that Americans are engaging in anew this spring are not so low risk. 

“People gather on holidays and they like to spend time with people,” John Henry, a contact tracer with the Columbus, Ohio Health Department, told reporters on a call earlier this month, saying he’s seen a trend of infection rates peaking after holiday weekends, when people spend lots of time with extended family and friends, including on Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day weekend.

“I think everyone is really starved for that type of togetherness,” he said.

One health care worker in Jacksonville, Florida recently expressed her regret for such a situation to local TV station WJXT, saying “it was too soon to open everything back up,” after she and 15 of her friends all tested positive for the coronavirus, after spending a single night out together at an Irish pub — sans masks. 

It’s that kind of tight-knit togetherness that easily breeds the coronavirus, especially when people spend lots of time together, indoors, snuggled in close proximity without masks or shields on. 

Arizona, a state that reopened its bars and restaurants in mid-May, has seen coronavirus cases tick up 82% in the past two weeks, according to AZ Central. 

In Texas, hospitalizations have been on the rise since Memorial Day, and the number of ICU beds available in south Florida is dwindling too. 

“The reason that we’re seeing a spike in cases here in Houston is because of the decisions that our governor has made to open up the economy fairly aggressively,” Dark said, arguing that the state’s reopening — now in phase three — which the federal government defines as “for states and regions with no evidence of a rebound,” is being rushed along too quickly.

“If it were me making those decisions, I would say, ‘Oh, maybe it’s time to dial it back down,'” Dark said. 

In Nevada, Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak is doing just that, and delaying phase three of his state’s reopening plan, just two weeks after Las Vegas casinos reopened for business (on June 4). 

“We have seen an increase in positive cases, & that has yet to negatively impact the capacity of hospitals,” the governor said in a tweet Monday night. “We are taking this seriously, as we have all along.”

If you’re going to be in a crowd, bring a mask, sanitizer, and find some spacePeople gather to protest the recent killing of George Floyd on May 29, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan.

Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

For those going to protest, Dark said it’s important to make sure you’re feeling healthy first, wear a mask, and avoid the crowds altogether if you’re in a high-risk health group, or “above the age of 50.” It’s also important to consider who in your household might be at risk, and quarantine away from any elders and other vulnerable health groups for two weeks after you’ve been out in the streets. 

Keep up good hand hygiene by carrying sanitizer to use before you eat or drink anything, or touch your hands to your face.

That’s how Okorodudu approached a recent “White Coats for Black Lives” kneel-in protest he attended with other healthcare workers, outside a local hospital in Dallas.  

“We followed the protocols,” he said. “Masks were mandatory, physical distancing, mandatory … I wasn’t concerned about any of us getting [coronavirus].” 

The doctor said the issue at hand in the protests — police violence against Black people — is “significant enough” that it “warrants a loud voice from the community,” despite the potential viral transmission risks. 

A Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2020.

Alfredo Macias via Reuters

Other Black doctors agree. 

“If your life is threatened by police brutality, which you can see every day, versus a tiny virus, which you can’t ever see, I understand people are going to be out there, protesting something that is a threat to them not only in the year 2020, but going back to the past 401 years,” Dark said.

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