PROTEST AND WORSHIP embody the most hallowed freedoms protected by the Constitution: freedom of thought, of religion, of assembly. They are also often very public and physical endeavors, such as a political demonstration or a church service. In normal times, we barely think twice. But in the middle of a pandemic, with a spreading virus that can sicken and kill, it is vital to think clearly about how to protect these rights yet also avoid making the pandemic worse.
The tension between these two forces has been growing. When the pandemic exploded in New York, doubts were raised about the wisdom and impact of a mass funeral. Then came spring break on the Florida beaches, followed by lockdowns and unease over government orders to sharply restrict movements and close businesses. Then came the outpouring of protest over police brutality. Next might be a campaign rally in Tulsa or a national political convention in a tightly packed arena. What is right and wrong?
The starting point to untangle this is to accept trade-offs. When the coronavirus first hit, the country accepted physical distancing and other restrictions to avoid a hospital armageddon. That was worth it, just as it later made sense to begin reopening the economy to save it. The question was not either-or, but finding the right balance of measures to protect people. In the same way, at least in the months or years before there is a vaccine or drug therapy, the questions swirling around protests and worship — as well as leisure events such as concerts and sports, or restaurants and malls, or presidential campaign rallies — must be measured against the risks.
We know this much: The virus is relentless and indiscriminate. It doesn’t care if you are protesting racism or cheering President Trump. The disease is transmitted person to person in small droplets by talking or shouting, singing or sneezing. Enclosed spaces tend to be more hazardous. Outdoors, with more air circulating, seems less conducive to transmission. The virus can stick on surfaces for a while. Less certain is how long it might hang in the air, and how contagious are asymptomatic and presymptomatic patients. So, no matter where you are or who you are, the mitigation strategy is important: Wear face masks, wash hands, avoid enclosed spaces with crowds.
These known dangers and countermeasures are a baseline for judging whether certain events are a good idea. Protest, worship and campaign rallies are exercises of our valued rights, and should not be carelessly discouraged or discarded. But these and other public gatherings must be measured against whether they can be held safely and to what extent they endanger the health of others. We should be willing to accept more risk to protect the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, or to let children resume their schooling, than we would, say, to fill football stadiums. But the trade-offs will continue to be difficult. As we strive to protect both rights and public health, we can aim for common sense, acknowledging there will never be perfection.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
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