Avoiding large gatherings is part of how we’ve tried to stay safe for the past few months, but protests have something in common with hospital services and (apparently) takeout margaritas: They’re essential to our well-being as a society.
I can’t tell you how to protest safely during a pandemic, because pandemics and protests both carry inherent risks. The risks of a pandemic you already know about. Protests can be dangerous not just because they bring you in contact with other people, but because policing tactics are themselves dangerous.
Mitigate the risks to yourself and those near you
Risk is not a yes/no question, but a spectrum. Some things pose more of a risk of infection than others. You can reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 at a large gathering like a protest with steps like these, suggested by epidemiologist Eleanor Murray:
Stay home if you are sick
Wear a mask and eye protection
Maintain distance from others and keep interactions short
Carry hand sanitiser
Use signs and noisemakers, because shouting produces lots of small respiratory droplets
Stick with a buddy group “to keep your unknown contacts low”
Consider quarantining yourself for 14 days afterward
Jessica Malaty Rivera suggests these extra steps to keep yourself healthy after you return home:
Take a shower and wash your clothes (this helps remove germs and can also remove residue of substances like tear gas)
Disinfect your belongings
Rest and hydrate to take care of your body and take steps to care for your mental health
These steps won’t guarantee that you won’t catch the coronavirus, but they can reduce your risk. It’s important to note that outdoor gatherings are less risky than indoor ones, and many organisers make physical distancing a priority during protests, often asking people or groups to stay six feet apart.
Assist and organise from home
If you feel sick, if you believe that you may have been exposed or if you don’t feel safe venturing into a crowd, there are other ways you can help an activist cause without joining a protest in person.
Groups that organise protests often need people to do support work from behind the scenes. These jobs may not be glamorous, but they are necessary; perhaps you can run a social media account, wrangle volunteer signups, make phone calls or juggle other tasks that don’t require a physical presence.
Other ways to help without being physically present include donating money and providing snacks or other supplies.
If you can’t find a role in an organised group, you can still help friends and family. Perhaps you can provide child care or give someone a ride to enable them to attend a protest. (Remember to figure these interactions into your contact budget, and don’t take them on if you feel sick or have decided to quarantine.)
Call on police and local governments to stop endangering lives
While protesting carries an inherent risk—because it brings people together—police actions can make a protest even more dangerous. Aside from direct violence, police actions can endanger health by increasing the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. For example:
“Kettling” protesters into small areas increases crowding
Arresting and detaining protesters indoors increases the risk of spreading COVID-19
Tear gas, in widespread use by police this week, may contribute to respiratory infections, according to Army research.
I can’t stop looking at these images of protesters wearing masks, keeping distance, and being their best selves, juxtaposed with maskless cops surrounding, attacking, corralling, jailing, and gassing people. Protesting isn’t a #COVID19 superspreading event—police violence is.— Ellie Murray (@EpiEllie) June 3, 2020
If you’re concerned about protests possibly contributing to an uptick in coronavirus cases, addressing the cause of these protests—police violence—is the real solution. Pressure your governments to demand accountability and defund police departments, and read up on policy solutions at Campaign Zero. Oh, and what’s one highly visible way to demand change right now? Protesting.