Social Distancing Versus Social Statement: Doctors Worry Protests Could Spread Coronavirus but Say Racism is Deadly, Too

Masks are a common sight during the recent protests, but social distancing is not. Here protestors gathered in front of the Vestavia Hills City Hall on Friday. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Social distancing has taken a backseat to social statements the past week as persons have assembled in large numbers to protest the death of George Floyd and to call for change.

But state health officials worry that the combination of crowds and the coronavirus could greatly amplify COVID-19 cases in Alabama and the U.S. They urge people to remain mindful of social distancing, hygiene and face covering recommendations as they assemble.

Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said she and others in her department are deeply concerned and saddened about the death of George Floyd. And they say persons have the right to peaceful assembly to express their individual and collective opinions.

“But we do remain concerned when there’s a congregate group of any size for any reason, and social distancing measures are not taking place,” Landers said. “It concerns me as a physician to see people that are in large groups that aren’t taking any measures.

“They’re not distanced. They have no mask on and obviously they don’t have an opportunity to significantly sanitize their hands,” the doctor continued. “It’s a very concerning situation and we just want to remind that the COVID-19 is still circulating and that persons need to take these measures to protect themselves during such encounters.”

The risk of being in large gatherings is increased as participants raise their voices and likely project more droplets that could contain the virus.

“Of course having a mask on will be helpful in slowing down and reducing those droplets coming out,” Landers said. “If they’re outside and they’re wearing a mask, then that’s somewhat helpful. Again, if persons (are) yelling or shouting or projecting their voice more, that’s a risk. That’s a risk and we just are concerned.

“We want people to be aware of their own personal safety,” the doctor said, “and the safety of their loved ones and the safety of the community as they engage in this activity.”

The issue is being debated nationally. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, told Congress last week that he feared the protests could spread the virus, especially in areas where the virus isn’t well controlled at this point, according to the Washington Post.

Redfield advised that people who have been to protests get tested for the virus. “I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event,” Redfield said.

Almost 1,300 doctors signed a letter calling on police to stop using tear gas and pepper spray because they say the agents could accelerate the spread of the virus, another topic brought up in testimony to Congress.

But that doesn’t mean most doctors advise canceling protests. In fact, a letter signed by 1,200 doctors last week opposed banning protests, saying that, while the spread of coronavirus is a concern, racism is as deadly as the virus.

Redfield pointed out during his testimony that other large events pose just as much danger, mentioning crowds that gathered for the SpaceX launch and the now-infamous Lake of the Ozarks Memorial Day parties, where few were wearing masks or social distancing.

“We’re very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating,” Redfield said,