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Did protests lead to spike in coronavirus cases?

Researchers say it's unlikely

FILE - In this June 19, 2020, file photo, protesters wear protective masks as they march after a Juneteenth rally outside the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
FILE - In this June 19, 2020, file photo, protesters wear protective masks as they march after a Juneteenth rally outside the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Protesters have been taking to the streets to call for an end to racism and police brutality across the U.S. and the world -- but has it caused a spike in coronavirus cases?

Since the end of May, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, thousands have participated in demonstrations around the world. The protests have continued into July.

The U.S. has recorded a major surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, especially in Florida, Arizona and Texas, while several other states have seen minimal growth. Pretty much every state had some sort of protests activity in early June.

Several Republican lawmakers have blamed the spike in cases on protesters. The protests coincided with many states reopening businesses, some earlier than others.

Republican Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez said last week that protests “obviously have a lot to do” with the spike” in Miami. “We had, you know, thousands of young people together outside, a lot of them not wearing masks. And we know that when you do that and you are talking and you are chanting, etc. that really spreads the virus.”

So did protests lead to spike in virus cases?

If the protests had driven an explosion in cases, experts say, the jumps would have started to become apparent within two weeks — and perhaps as early as five days. But that didn’t happen in many cities with the largest protests, including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.

A paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research says no, the 300-city protests have not led to a spike in coronavirus cases.

Researchers compared several data points, including mobility data, protest size, population and case growth in the following weeks, in 300 major U.S. cities.

Researchers determined that, based on cellphone mobility data, “cities which had protests saw an increase in social distancing behavior for the overall population relative to cities that did not,” leading to “modest evidence of a small longer-run case growth decline.”

Researchers also noted that positive test rates in many major cities who had massive protests saw no notable increase, despite the increase in overall testing.

“In many cities, the protests actually seemed to lead to a net increase in social distancing, as more people who did not protest decided to stay off the streets. When considering the results’ implications for the entire population: public speech and public health did not trade off against each other in this case,” researchers wrote.

“While it is possible that the protests caused an increase in the spread of COVID-19 among those who attended the protests, we demonstrate that the protests had little effect on the spread of COVID-19 for the entire population of the counties with protests during the more than three weeks following protest onset.”

Of course, many of the people protesting are younger, and therefore, are more likely to have a mild or asymptomatic case, and may forgo testing. The study is still being peer reviewed.

It’s also worth noting that protests have been taking place around the world, but the U.S. is one of the only countries seeing a surge in cases.

Cases in U.S. vs. world as of July 5, 2020.
Cases in U.S. vs. world as of July 5, 2020. (WorldOMeters.)

So what’s causing spike in cases?

It’s hard for health officials to pinpoint one exact cause for the recent spike in cases. It’s likely a mix of factors.

States reopening bars, restaurants and other businesses is likely the leading cause of the surge in cases, which has forced many states to re-close or limit bars to help slow growth.

In Michigan, at least two outbreaks have been linked to bars or nightclubs. Michigan Gov. Whitmer closed indoor bar services last week as cases started to show growth.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom took similar action, ordering bars and indoor restaurant dining to close again for the next three weeks in most of the state. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the city’s resumption of indoor dining.

Texas, Arizona, Los Angeles and some Pennsylvania counties are closing bars to slow the spread of the virus. Florida and Colorado have told bars they cannot serve alcohol on site.

A study released last week found that closing bars could be the key to controlling spread.

Crowded indoor spaces filled with people yelling, leaning close to hear one another and touching the same sticky surfaces are “the opposite of social distancing,” said Dr. David Hamer of the Boston University School of Medicine.

“Can you do social distancing at a bar? Can you wear a mask while drinking?” Hamer said. “Bars are the perfect place to break all those rules.”

Saskia Popescu, an infectious diseases expert in Phoenix, said it’s difficult to disinfect surfaces at a bar enough to make a difference. Even sitting at a table with friends at a bar involves loud talking and laughing that could spread virus. It’s not worth it, she concludes. “You can make a cocktail at home.”

Overall fatigue from quarantining, warmer weather and lack of mask wearing are also contributing factors.


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