Be Wary of Blame-Shifting: Reopening Businesses and Protesting Do Not Carry Equivalent Risks

Protestors wears masks with the message "I Still Can't Breathe" during a vigil at Foley Square in New York on May 29, 2020, recognizing the death of George Floyd.

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the United States—particularly in the South and West—it is just a matter of time until the Trump administration and its allies try to deflect from its reckless, dangerous response to the coronavirus pandemic by doubling down on blaming the ongoing protests in support of racial justice for causing additional spread of the virus.

Public health experts agree that premature ends to stay-at-home orders, relaxing of social distancing policies, and lack of mask-wearing are tied to the most recent spikes in cases. President Donald Trump’s actions have directly contributed to all of these things. He has encouraged governors to reopen their economies without meeting benchmarks set by his own administration. In addition, he not only refuses to wear masks in public, but he has also actively promoted a conspiracy theory that mask-wearing is a form of “social control,” despite evidence that masks could be key to halting the spread of the coronavirus, especially as stay-at-home orders expire.

The fundamental differences between protesting and reopening

While it is true that the ongoing protests may result in additional COVID-19 cases, those making the decision to join the rallies and call for racial justice are in fact fighting a preexisting public health crisis—systemic racism. There is a fundamental difference between the decision of people to protest inequality and injustice and the demands of the president and his supporters that people risk their health and lives in order to return to the “normalcy” of consumerism and comfort.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities is just the latest example of this broader public health crisis. On average, Black people are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Of course, these racial disparities in health outcomes—stemming from systemic inequality and tied to structural racism in the health care and social service systems—have been persistent throughout America’s history, with minimal progress made. Further, African Americans or Black Americans face poorer health outcomes than white Americans for chronic health conditions, mental health treatment, cancer mortality, and maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, the essential front-line workers who have continued to provide care and other essential services throughout the pandemic, risking exposure to the virus, are disproportionately people of color, including millions of Black Americans with underlying health conditions.

Recognizing the risks of COVID-19, the protesters who continue to take to the streets to fight for racial justice have largely taken precautions to prevent the transmission of the virus. The demonstrations are being held outside, which has a lower risk of transmission than indoor spaces. Recent reports indicate that most protesters have been wearing masks and that many organizers have been hard at work securing supplies of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer and sharing information about how to get tested to encourage safety. These precautionary measures may be working, as New York City has not reported an uptick in new cases in the weeks following the protests.

In areas where cases may rise despite precautions taken at protests, at least some of the cases that will be traced back to protests will be the result of reckless behavior by the police. In addition to confirmation by countless on-the-ground protesters and journalists, a HuffPost analysis of hundreds of photos and videos found most police officers were not wearing protective masks at protests. Police officers’ lack of mask-wearing carries greater risk for the protesters near them than for themselves. Police have been seen “kettling” protesters—using a crowd control tactic that confines protesters in a tight space and prevents them from leaving. As we know, prolonged periods of time with individuals in close proximity heightens the risk of coronavirus transmission. Further, during the protests, police have arrested more than 10,000 individuals, primarily for low-level offenses such as curfew violations and failure to disperse. In addition to the likely crowded conditions in which arrested protesters were transported and processed, there have been reports of protesters being held in crowded cells, sometimes without masks, as cases in jails and prisons continue to rise.

Protesters also appear to be taking the risk of COVID-19 far more seriously than some patrons and owners of reopened businesses. From the nightlife district in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to a strip club in Wisconsin to a cluster of bars in Boise, Idaho, numerous outbreaks across the country have been tied to bars and other indoor facilities. In fact, an analysis of the spending of Chase credit and debit card holders found the level of in-person spending at restaurants to be the strongest predictor of where new cases would emerge. Despite case numbers remaining high and continuing to rise, young people are engaging in increasingly risky behaviors by patronizing bars, resulting in growing case rates among younger demographics. In Florida, for example, there were four times as many new cases among 15- to 34-year-olds in a recent week than there were among people ages 55 to 64. With behavior in a Texas bar leading a patron to tell press, “You would never think COVID happened,” and a lack of compliance with safety precautions among bar owners and patrons alike, the Texas and Florida governors have had to close bars once again in their states.

The politicization of masks has also become so extreme that at least one bar owner has refused service to any person wearing a mask. Tourists in newly reopened Las Vegas—known for its densely populated indoor casinos and facilities, which are bound to be at higher risk—reported that only about half of the people they encountered were wearing masks. Naturally, since about a week and a half after casinos started to reopen, the number of cases in Nevada has steadily risen. These reckless actions are far more likely to result in additional cases than the outdoor protests.

Conclusion

The ongoing protests for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd cannot wait; there must be swift and radical change to end the systematic murder and incarceration of Black people, as well as the persistent inequities across the nation’s health care, employment, and housing systems. The Trump administration and its allies across the country will continue to ignore the key distinction between urgent and essential action to fight systemic racism and the millions of people who want to return to their daily lives and leisure activities. We cannot let this distinction be ignored.

Nicole Rapfogel is a research assistant for Health Policy at the Center for American Progress. Maura Calsyn is the managing director of Health Policy at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.