A rally protesting police brutality held at the Iowa State Capitol on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo by Shane Vander Hart)

The justified anger at the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis has sparked nationwide protests, rioting, and looting. At its best, it was people coming together by the thousands to stand against police brutality and to oppose the specter of racial bias that haunts Black Americans.  

However, there’s a point I’m hesitant to make as I’ve seen many in the right make it quite poorly. These protests occur during a global pandemic where we’ve been advised to maintain social distancing, yet we have multiple gatherings of thousands of people. The protests bust limitations on outdoor gatherings in every state in the country. They also dwarf the demonstrations by anti-lockdown protestors, which drew massive media criticism for the number who participated in these outdoor events.

While some local officials such as DC Mayor Muriel Bowser have expressed concerns about the lack of social distancing, many cities are thanking protestors. In my home city of Boise, the city Facebook page posted a thank you note for those who participated in a rally attended by thousands. They did this even though gatherings are currently limited to fifty people during stage three of the city’s reopening and will not exceed two hundred and fifty people until a vaccine is approved.

A group of nearly 1,300 doctors and public health experts signed an open letter supporting the protests arguing, “White Supremacy is a lethal public health issue” in justification for supporting events that they would oppose for any other purpose. This letter is irresponsible and threatens several adverse outcomes. 

An Immediate Second Wave 

In the next few weeks, we’ll know whether these protests lead to new outbreaks of the disease in cities that have already been ravaged by it. Antibody tests have shown that nowhere in the country is close to herd immunity. In their open letter, the experts advise local public health officials to expect an uptick in infections and implied that we are to expect more deaths. Whether it will constitute a few scattered cases or a strong second wave that will further cripple our economy and unleash more disease and death on our nation will remain to be seen. 

The tragic part of this risk is that protesters and their families will be the ones most at risk if the protests bring about a second wave of infections. It would be ironic if rallies centered around the idea “Black Lives Matter” cost more black lives than the actual issues being protested because it was more important to make their point than protect black lives. 

People Concluding the Pandemic is Over and a Delayed Second Wave 

There are reasons to hope the worst possible outcome might be avoided. Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, by definition, there’s a lot we don’t know about it. The fact that the protests are held outdoors where there’s less risk of spread may limit potential spread. Perhaps, the hopes of those who theorize that warmer weather may prevent the spread of the virus may be realized.  

Also, while anti-lockdown protestors avoided wearing masks, far more of the demonstrators at rallies for George Floyd have been wearing masks. While we’ve been advised that masks are no substitute for social distancing, perhaps they are more effective than we’ve been led to believe.

However, rather than assuming a nuanced explanation that explains the limited exposure, the lack of an immediate second wave in the light of these protests may lead many to resume living as they did pre-COVID-19. The result could be an eventual second wave later on (potentially in the Fall) that the public won’t be prepared for due to abandoning precautions. 

Loss of Credibility of Public Health Officials 

The best potential outcome for this is that the disease wanes and dies out. The protests don’t lead to a new outbreak. A vaccine or treatments are developed, and the second wave doesn’t hit America with much force. Or perhaps the disease is losing potency as an Italian doctor hopes and COVID-19 will fizzle out on its own as SARS did more than a decade ago. 

If it does, public health officials had better hope that our country doesn’t face a disease requiring the level of public sacrifice that COVID-19 had for at least a generation. The support for the protests has squandered their credibility. 

It’s not that the issues raised in regards to the killing of George Floyd aren’t necessary, it’s that these public health officials have decided they are more important than other concerns. I think that sin is a public health issue, and I’m sure I could find several hundred doctors in America who would agree with me. You could make a case that outdoor evangelistic meetings with unlimited size should be allowed. Similarly, many would argue that shame and isolation are bad for LGBT individuals, and therefore LGBT PRIDE parades should be allowed under the same conditions.

In a pluralistic society, there’s a broad consensus: large public gatherings are a terrible idea. Widely, public events have been canceled, postponed, or moved online, whether they’re evangelistic crusades, PRIDE parades, writer’s conferences, or music festivals. People have made these decisions because it was what “science” demanded. 

The credibility of that approach is destroyed when medical science begins making value judgments that are above their pay grade. Any outdoor event that makes some attempt at social distancing needs to be allowed or public health officials need to be more alarmed by thousands of gatherings in the streets than at twenty people hanging out at the beach.  

If a second wave is linked to the protests, it will lead to resentment at elected and public health officials. Those officials who, for months, told us to sacrifice so much in terms of human contact, worship, travel, economic health, and enjoyment of life, then squandered that sacrifice in the name of their moral judgments. If there’s no negative result, the sacrifices that have been made to protect others will be increasingly viewed as wasted and unnecessary pain caused by the caprices of those making up rules to suit their fancy.  

I understand the impulse behind the protests. After such a horrific event, it feels like the right thing to do. However, it also felt right to throw a victory parade for victorious soldiers returning from World War I. When Philadelphia did that, they exacerbated the 1918 Spanish flu.  

A virus doesn’t care what the purpose of a gathering is. If conditions are right, it will spread, it will infect, and in too many cases, it will kill. Scientists will tell you that when they’re not trying to be philosopher kings.  

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