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 cellphone 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.”