How to Safely Protest During the COVID-19 Pandemic
First, let's be clear that participating in protests is just one of many ways to support Black Lives Matter. You can also donate to organizations that support BIPOC communities, or educate yourself on topics such as implicit bias to become a better ally. (More here: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
But if you want to make your voice heard at a protest, know that there are ways to lower your risk of catching—or spreading—COVID-19. For the most part, this means practicing many of the same precautions you've followed for the last several months: frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, wearing a face mask, and social distancing—and yes, the latter is likely to be especially tricky at a protest. If you're able to, try to keep at least 10 to 15 feet of distance between yourself and others, suggests board-certified family medicine physician James Pinckney II, M.D. "Assume that the stranger standing next to you is spreading the virus," adds Stephen Berger, M.D., infectious disease expert and founder of the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network (GIDEON).
Again, though, effective social distancing is likely to be unrealistic at most protests. So, it's that much more important to ensure you're following as many other COVID-19 safety precautions as possible. Yes, you're probably sick of being told to wear a face mask, but seriously, please just do it. Multiple experts agree that the wide use of face masks at protests appears to be the main reason why there hasn't been an uptick in COVID-19 cases connected to these gatherings.
"We're finding that [other] social events and gatherings, these parties where people aren't wearing masks, are our primary source of infection," Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department in Washington, told NPR of the local COVID-19 situation. But at protests in her county, "almost everyone" wears a mask, she said. "It's really a testament to how effective masks are in preventing the spread of this disease."
In addition to wearing a face mask and practicing overall good hygiene, Rona Silkiss, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Silkiss Eye Surgery, suggests wearing protective eyewear to a protest.
"With large crowds, COVID-19 is more likely to transmit through mucous membranes, such as our eyes, nose, and mouth," she explains. Protective eyewear (think: glasses, goggles, safety glasses) can potentially serve as a barrier and prevent the virus from entering through these mucous membranes, she says. Not only can protective eyewear help protect you from COVID-19, but it may also serve as a "critical vision-saving barrier" against injury from flying objects, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, adds Dr. Silkiss. (Related: Nurses Are Marching with Black Lives Matter Protesters and Providing First Aid Care)
It's also not a bad idea to consider getting tested for COVID-19 after attending a protest. "We really want [those who attend protests] to highly consider being evaluated and get tested [for COVID-19], and obviously go from there, because I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for [a protest] to be a [superspreading] event," Robert Redfield, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at a recent Congressional hearing, according to The Hill.
However, some experts point out that it's not necessarily as simple as getting a COVID-19 test immediately after attending a protest. "It's difficult and not recommended to test every protester," says Khawar Siddique, M.D., a neuro-spine surgeon at DOCS Spine and Orthopedics. "Instead, you should get tested if you have known exposure (direct droplet exposure for more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone infected) and if you develop any symptoms (loss of taste/smell, fever, chills, respiratory symptoms like cough/shortness of breath)" within 48 hours of attending the protest, he explains.
"Testing without symptoms is not recommended in most situations because the test result is only good for that day," adds Amber Noon, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Broomfield, Colorado. "You can still develop symptoms in the next few days [after getting tested]."
So, when and if you get tested after participating in a protest is ultimately up to you. Many experts maintain that it's good to err on the side of caution and get tested after attending a protest, regardless of whether you're experiencing symptoms or can confirm known exposure to the virus.
"No one really knows when to get tested, because it may take several days to detect the antigen (virus) or develop the antibodies to the virus," admits Dr. Siddique. But, again, if you have known exposure to the virus and begin developing coronavirus symptoms within 48 hours after a protest, these are clear indicators to get tested, he says. "Most importantly, you must self-isolate until you get tested if you think you have the virus." (See: When, Exactly, Should You Self-Isolate If You Think You Have the Coronavirus?)
Remember that protecting yourself and others around you at protests means that more people are healthy and able to continue fighting the battle for racial justice and equality—and there's a long road ahead.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.