• Sebastian Leck

FACT CHECK: Did protests against police brutality in the US cause a spike in COVID-19 cases?

FALSE. Protests do have the potential to spread the virus, but a recent study suggests that the spread may have been offset by more people staying home. However, experts say it’s possible that more cases could emerge in the coming weeks.

Protests began in the United States in late May following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and quickly sparked broader protests against racism and police brutality in the country, as well as in Canada and other parts of the world.

For weeks, media outlets in the US and Canada have warned that the demonstrations could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. Last month, the New York Times asked if the protests would cause a second wave of infections, while the CBC quoted an infectious disease expert in early June who said he had concerns about seeing so many people packed closely together. In a story in The Atlantic titled “The Protests Will Spread the Coronavirus,” staff writer Robinson Meyer spoke to experts who also told him that protests in the US would inevitably spread COVID-19.

But over the last week, news outlets have reported that the protests actually don’t seem to be causing surges in cases at all. The main pieces of evidence cited are a recent paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and numbers from cities that were at the centre of protests, both of which seem to show that predictions of a new wave of COVID-19 cases did not pan out.

While protesters gathered in the street, people who weren’t protesting may have stayed home more often

In the working paper, which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, researchers at the NBER used anonymous cell phone location data and COVID-19 testing numbers to come to two different but related conclusions. First, they found that physical distancing—defined in the paper as staying at home—seemed to increase in cities with Black Lives Matter protests. Second, they found that the number of COVID-19 cases did not grow in the three weeks after protests began in 281 cities.

The authors of the study speculate that people who weren’t protesting stayed at home—either because they thought the protests were dangerous, or for more mundane reasons like avoiding downtown traffic—which may have compensated for any increase in infections.

There are other explanations for their findings as well: protesters could have successfully prevented COVID-19 from spreading by wearing masks or, on a less positive note, they may not have gone in for testing if they had less severe symptoms, which are common in young people.

Other researchers have said that being outdoors could have made a big difference. “Outdoors there is so much dilution in the atmosphere that it would be unusual for virus levels to build up in the air,” Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor of Virginia Tech, told WIRED. Recent spikes in COVID-19 cases seem to come more often from indoor gatherings, like parties, rather than outdoor protests.

Cities haven’t seen increases in cases

Minneapolis, where the murder of Floyd took place, was at the centre of many of the protests last month. However, only 1.8 percent of the 3,150 protesters who were tested have contracted COVID-19, according to MedPage Today. HealthPartners, a health care provider in the state, also tested about 8,500 people who were at protests and found that only 1 percent were positive for COVID-19.

The numbers are still early, but it’s a good sign. Health officials in Philadelphia, Seattle, and several other cities also haven’t seen upticks in COVID-19 cases after protests. Numbers from the last three weeks from New York City’s health department similarly don’t show a spike since major protests began in May (in fact, cases have trended downwards).

We can’t jump to conclusions yet

It could be that we’ll see more cases in the next few weeks. Caroline Colijn, a Simon Fraser University professor who studies evolution, infection, and public health, told the CBC that there could be “a three- to six-week delay” before we start seeing a rise in cases. She said that while the virus has a two-week incubation period, some people won’t show symptoms at all and there could also be delays in testing.

Until more time passes, we can’t be totally sure that protests don’t lead to more infections. So far, though, it looks like predictions of a spike in COVID-19 cases after the protests have not come to pass.