Protest in the Time of Quarantine: Balancing Public Health Goals

During quarantine, which is authorized as a means to protect the well-being of the public through the state police power, our civil liberties are limited.  Two such related liberties are the Freedom of Speech and Assembly secured by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Given recent events, the protection of quarantine for the public good has been set against another public health issue: racism, and the violence that is its too-frequent accompaniment.

Assembly in the time of pandemic can be life-threatening.  In many cities, large gatherings are still prohibited.  This mandate is in place to decrease the chance of transmission of COVID-19.  Millions have been infected and more than 112,000 people have died in the United States.  Transmission is through respiratory droplets and close contact.  The greater the number of people there are in proximity to one another, the greater the risk of transmission.

On the other hand, the unfair treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement is also a recognized threat to public health.  The treatment for this much more complicated problem is policy reform and education, which are often catalyzed by the expression of the public through speech and assembly. The murder of George Floyd by police officers enkindled widespread protests — and people gathering in the very sorts of crowds that public health authorities have been warning against since March.

Given the number of deaths, does it seem clear to you people should obey quarantine mandates and not gather in protest? Consider the following:

  • The approximate median age for a person who dies from police violence is 35.
  • The approximate median age for a person who dies from COVID-19 is 75.
  • The life expectancy of a person in the U.S. is 78 years of age.

While far more people have died this year from COVID-19 than from police violence, the unjustified killing of black and brown people is an on-going problem that, over many years and when taken in conjunction with other consequences of racism — injury; emotional trauma and fear; and discrimination in every area of life, to name just the most obvious — has taken a greater cumulative toll, especially since the median age of death from such violence is 35. In sum, racism and its consequences are also public health problems, though transmitted in much more complex and difficult to solve ways. That’s why public health authorities have struggled to balance the need for social distance with the urgency of response to racism. In addition, much is still unknown about how and why COVID-19 transmission rises, plateaus, and falls.

This complexity has often been missed by those claiming that, by refusing to condemn or urge the end of these protests, public health authorities have compromised their credibility. While the proper balance of competing concerns is impossible to strike with precision, here are a few ways to strive for this balance that occur to us:

  • Protesters should, to the extent possible, continue to maintain social distance. This may often be difficult or impossible, but should be considered.
  • All protesters should wear protective masks and carry hand sanitizer. While the science isn’t completely clear on how effective masks are, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends masks where social distancing is not possible.
  • Those who are at high-risk from COVID-19 should either refrain from protesting, or exercise careful judgment about how best to do so.
  • Protests should take place only in large outdoor spaces where transmission is much less likely than in enclosed spaces. Almost all protests fall into this category.
  • Protesters should consider getting themselves tested about five or six days after the protests (giving time for the tests to detect the virus), especially if they will be in close contact with those at high-risk of serious complications or death from the virus.

In recent days, especially, most of the protests have been peaceful. Violent protests, while they may be effective in some ways, create their own public health issues.

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