The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In cities, a dramatic end to social distancing

Thousands of protesters demonstrate in downtown Los Angeles on June 3. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)
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After nearly three months of staying home, avoiding groups and keeping away from people who coughed, Allison Lane found herself packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a stranger’s home filled with people who were hacking their lungs out.

The police had throttled them onto a residential D.C. street, and a local man had opened his door to provide refuge. They were coughing because of the tear gas police had used to disperse groups of people that had stayed out past curfew to peacefully protest police violence. Some people trapped in the house on Swann Street NW had removed their masks to wash chemical irritants from their skin and eyes.

So much for social distancing.

D.C. resident Rahul Dubey gave refuge to around 60 protesters inside his home after law enforcement had pushed them down his street. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Like many Americans, Lane had lately been living as a shut-in, giving other people — and herself — plenty of space to avoid the coronavirus that has killed more than 100,000 Americans in the past three months. Then George Floyd had been brutally killed by police, on camera, and she felt compelled to take to the streets.

She had tried to maintain her distance from other protesters, but now that was impossible. The solidarity of a mass demonstration had given way to the intimacy of a makeshift bunker. There protesters, who were “mostly black and brown people,” wanted to console each other, says Lane. There were a lot of hugs.

“When we were stuck in the house, I was like, I guess it’s all a wash from here,” says Lane, 34. “I’ve been trapped in [my] house for months, and now I’m out here protesting people dying, and I might die of covid.”

What a way for a quarantine to end. What a whiplash rebound for the public square. What an abrupt shift from one dangerous reality to another.

Since March, the suspension of sports and parades and rallies and concerts had made the sight of large crowds a rarity, an anxiety trigger, even a scandal. Now, we are seeing massive crowds moving like ice floes on city streets. Protesters crowding shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting and chanting and singing at the tops of their lungs. Police moving in tight formation, manhandling people and spiriting them away to crowded cells.

“If you told me in February that in the next three months I was going to see no strangers whatsoever, and then my first intimate contact with strangers would be in the back of a prison bus, I’m not sure what I would have said,” says Jackson Loop, a 28-year-old Californian.

Loop was arrested for violating curfew at a downtown Los Angeles protest on the first day of June. He ended up on the bus with about 40 other protesters. Some were wearing masks, some were not. Loop’s mask had slipped down during his arrest, and he could not fix it while handcuffed. They were unloaded at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium — which, before it became a temporary processing center for protest arrestees, was a coronavirus testing site. “The irony,” he says, “was not lost on us.”

"Orange is the New Black" actor Matt McGorry posted video of a demonstration May 30 in Los Angeles where police could be seen slamming protesters with batons. (Video: Matt McGorry via Storyful)

For Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland, Calif., the sudden leap from social distancing to social in-the-midst-ancing was “terrifying and beautiful.” Terrifying, because she has asthma — if tear gas does not wreak havoc on her lungs, covid-19 could. Beautiful, because of the solidarity and the electric feeling of being surrounded by thousands of people determined to make themselves heard.

“Just to see my people, right?” she says. “Just to be around other human beings. Just to see people resisting . . . To get to look someone in the eye, smile or raise a fist. We’re social creatures.”

The risks

We are indeed, and for months public health officials have urged people to resist their social nature, because that is what the coronavirus exploits. On that front, the massive protests across the country represent a risk of backsliding. Anthony S. Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has expressed worry that protests could become spreading events. “Clearly there is active infection transmission,” he told WTOP, a D.C. radio station. “It’s a perfect setup for further spread of the virus.”

But for many black Americans staying safe is not as simple as laying low. Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has ravaged black communities at a much higher rate than white communities. Black and brown people are more likely to work low-wage essential jobs, increasing their exposure to the illness, with fewer protections from their employers. Due to unequal health care, housing, and even access to grocery stores, black people suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses like hypertension and diabetes, comorbidities for covid-19.

The nationwide protests were sparked by the police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but they also came in the middle of a pandemic that has been especially deadly to black Americans.

“It’s just insult after insult after insult,” says Enrique Neblett, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who studies racial health disparities. The killing of Floyd “reinforces the same idea, that seems to suggest black lives don’t really matter and are expendable,” says Neblett. “And so you put it together, and it’s not a pretty picture.”

So people have taken to the streets, even if showing up in numbers means risking more infections.

For Brandon Mykel, 21, of Long Beach, Calif., the decision was a no-brainer. “I’ve been a black male for 21 years,” says Mykel. “The coronavirus has only affected my life for six months of these 21 years. But the whole 21 years, I’ve had to change where I go. I’ve had to change what I wear, change how I talk. . . . The police force is actually a lot more scary and a lot more worse to me than the pandemic.”

Still, he is sensitive to the risks and is trying to help people protect themselves. Mykel went to multiple Los Angeles-area protests in late May to give away hand sanitizer, masks and water out of the back of a pickup truck. “A lot of people’s eyes lit up,” when he pumped the sanitizer into their hands, says Mykel. “We’ve still got to flatten the curve.”

Some health professionals, sympathetic to the calculation Mykel and other protesters are making, have essentially written them a doctor’s note clearing them to participate. A group of more than 1,200 epidemiologists and public health professionals signed an open letter stating their support for the protests, despite the risks. “As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States,” the letter says.

At many protests, the desire to mitigate the collateral effects of protesting are evident. Some protesters are wearing masks. Some are even designing protests around social distancing needs. Leah Key and her friend Hassan Thomas, both of Upper Marlboro, Md., have organized a socially distanced car protest for Prince George’s County, which has the most coronavirus infections of the Washington region, despite being one of the nation’s wealthiest majority-black counties. Protesters are asked to decorate their cars with signs and honk their horns.

But even as protesters take precautions with each other, some things remain out of their control. Like the police. One video from a New York City demonstration shows an officer yanking down a black man’s mask to pepper spray him in the face. The HuffPost reported that law enforcement officials seized shipments of cloth masks printed with the words “Stop Killing Black People,” sent to various cities by the Movement for Black Lives.

“I don’t think there’s any way to know how bad it will be,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told The Washington Post, “but there is likely to be increased cases in cities with large protests.” And because many states began seeing restaurants, salons and beach boardwalks reopen at around the time the protests began, it may be difficult to pinpoint the cause in viral spread.

“I think we have to stop and ask the question,” says Neblett, the public health researcher. “Why did these folks feel that they had to, again, put their lives on the line and risk contracting covid to fight for humanity?”