How To Protest Safely During A Pandemic

Jun 4, 2020

As demonstrators walk the streets in protest of police brutality against minority communities, organizers and health officials are concerned something sinister may be joining their ranks: coronavirus.

The virus is thought to spread between people in close contact with one another through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Protests are often crowded, with lots of singing and chanting. The situation gets even more complicated if mace or tear gas gets deployed, which can cause the eyes to water and the throat to burn. As people seek relief by rubbing their eyes with their hands or removing a mask to cough, they either risk infection or may unknowingly make the virus airborne.

"Anytime we see during a pandemic individuals coming together, there is always an increase in risk," says Interim Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman. "It's absolutely critical that people continue to do the steps we've been outlining since February."

That includes wearing a mask, socially distancing, and frequently washing hands, among other recommendations.

Photos of the nearly week-long protests throughout Cincinnati show many wearing masks, and our reporters on the ground have witnessed organizers and demonstrators alike reminding people to stay six feet apart from other marchers.

Demonstrators continue to rally and protest the murder of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in downtown Cincinnati.
Credit Jason Whitman / WVXU

Precautions For Protesters

Also making protesting during this pandemic problematic is data from across the nation that shows black and Latino communities disproportionally affected by COVID-19.

Gabriela Godinez is a demonstrator from Cincinnati who was born in Mexico and moved to the Queen City when she was 2. She says she grew up in an activist family and has never questioned going to protests. Until now.

The 24-year-old says her mother is very outspoken about injustice. When she told her mom she was going to one of the local protests organized in honor of George Floyd, she replied, "Are you an idiot?" Godinez recalls with a laugh.

Her mother told her to pay attention to what doctors are doing when they come home from their shifts, and Godinez did, which resulted in various social media posts about how her fellow marchers could stay safe. Her tips include wearing a mask, gloves and eye protection; taking off shoes before entering your home; and immediately washing clothes upon your return.

Credit Screenshot, with permission / Facebook

Kesterman adds that, if possible, stay toward the back of the march, where there often tends to be more space.

It's important for people to participate in their First Amendment rights, he says, but those who have underlying health conditions or are over the age of 65 may want to consider another way of showing their support, as they are the groups most at risk of catching the virus.

"There are multiple forms of activism," says Godinez. "Going out and protesting is not even where it starts or ends."

Should Protesters Get Tested For The Virus?

"Generally speaking, you don't get sick upon immediate exposure. It takes anywhere between 2-14 days," Kesterman says. "Wait until at least symptoms show up. If you're asymptomatic, wait several days to a week before going for a test."

He is quick to point out that some tests produce false negatives. "If you've had the symptoms, you should treat yourself like you have COVID-19," and quarantine, he says.

Protesting During A Pandemic

So what is it like to protest during a pandemic?

"It was really scary, I'm not going to lie," says Godinez. "I cried to my roommate the night before about it and she said, 'If your heart tells you you have to go, you have to go.' I went with my mask and my googles – which people should be wearing in any protest but especially now."

She says it's important for people to remember there is another virus in the United States, and that is racism.

"I know it sounds weird, but a pandemic almost feels small," she says. "People die every year because of racism."