A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

The perilous choice of protesting during coronavirus

Even as states reopen, epidemiologists caution against mass gatherings. But what if respecting one public health emergency means ignoring another?

Rick Bowmer/AP
Protesters demonstrate in Salt Lake City May 30, 2020. Protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought hundreds of people together in downtown Salt Lake City, adding to concerns about a rise in cases in the coming days and weeks.

Dear reader:
 Thousands of Americans have marched in big cities in recent days to protest police brutality and years of law enforcement-related killings of African Americans.
 In doing so, are they increasing the risk of a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks, by engaging in just the sort of mass gathering that health authorities have warned us to avoid as states slowly reopen from COVID-19 shutdowns?
 This is not a comment on demonstrators’ purpose. Monitor writers have covered the meaning and historical context of the protest explosion in numerous other stories since they began.
 But only weeks ago Americans congregating on beaches were getting shamed on social media. The crowds that have turned up in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolises this week are big, and densely packed. Social distancing in that context is almost impossible – though masks are a help.
 Dr. Anthony Fauci – probably the most famous epidemiologist in America – continues to warn against big public gatherings, though he has stopped short of talking about the George Floyd protests directly. In a June 2 interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association a questioner mentioned the protest context but Dr. Fauci shifted focus a bit in his response.
 “Pictures, photos, and TV clips of people very much congregated, no masks together, very closely congregated on a boardwalk, on a beach, in a pool, has been and continues to be a concern to me,” Dr. Fauci said.
 Some other health experts and politicians have said that systemic racism and police brutality are also public health threats and thus it is understandable that people have gone straight from lockdown to the streets.
 If nothing else, this is a serious public health messaging challenge, pointed out NBC’s Suzy Khimm on Twitter June 3. On the one hand, authorities have said for months to be as isolated as possible. On the other hand, suddenly it’s OK to go to mass events – but only certain ones.
 The whole thing points out that instead of an all-or-nothing approach America may need a middle way to manage the risks inherent in living life during a pandemic.
 “The bottom line is we just don’t know what the COVID-19 risks of these protests are yet. We will have a better idea in a few weeks,” writes Ms. Khimm.
 Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com

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