SEATTLE — A global pandemic isn’t stopping marchers from taking to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Instead of urging them to stay home, officials in some cities and states are helping them get tested.
New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta and Indianapolis are offering some form of free COVID-19 testing for protesters who have marched against police brutality. In New York City, state officials are opening 15 dedicated sites to test protesters.
“If you were at a protest, act responsibly,” said Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Get a test.”
Seattle also is opening a pair of sites and offering free testing to any resident who has participated in the protests. San Francisco has launched its own pop-up clinic for protesters. Meanwhile, Atlanta and Indianapolis held testing events to align with marches last weekend, urging participants to get tested.
And after thousands turned out to protest in Hawaii over the weekend, Democratic Gov. David Ige urged participants to self-isolate for a few days and seek medical care if they show symptoms.
The massive demonstrations have worried some public health experts, who fear they could contribute to a surge in the ongoing pandemic, but others have said the risk is necessary to address the problems — including health inequalities — caused by systemic racism.
As protests spread across the country, supporters faced a difficult choice, knowing that standing up for equality could also mean contributing to a public health crisis. Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County said late last month that it would not be organizing any gatherings.
“This virus has ravaged our communities in a way that largely mirrors the existing inequities and structural racism inherent in our health care systems,” the organization wrote. “We refuse to encourage our community members to needlessly risk their lives and their health during this time when other avenues of action are available.”
The nonprofit announced donations to bail funds and community organizations and encouraged its supporters to contribute. But as thousands have turned out day after day to protest, the group has issued a safety guide, encouraging supporters to wear masks, carry hand sanitizer and self-quarantine after group gatherings.
This week, the group announced a silent march set for Friday, to coincide with a statewide general strike. The decision to march, organizers said, “was not made lightly.”
“However, we feel that we are not taking a new risk,” they wrote. “Rather, we have already been put at risk. Anti-Blackness is a greater threat to our survival. Racism is its own pandemic. It’s killing us, and we are fighting to survive and thrive.”
In many major cities, officials have not tried to convince protesters to cancel their marches, perhaps realizing the futility of doing so. Instead, they’ve encouraged protesters to take precautions and follow public health guidelines. At a Seattle protest last week, the vast majority of participants wore masks, and volunteers had set up stations with free hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.
Access to testing remains a concern in some places: Los Angeles shut down its testing sites amid protests last week, which Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti said was for the safety of volunteers. Many critics, however, viewed the closures as a punitive measure against protesters.
While public health experts say the actions of police, such as tear-gassing and jailing protesters, may be causing the most pandemic danger, they acknowledge that protesting is not without risk right now.
“These are congregate activities — people are close together, chanting, singing and yelling,” said Dr. Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Many of them are people of color, coming from the populations that have been most severely affected by COVID-19.”
Schaffner encouraged protesters to wear masks, carry hand sanitizer and maintain as much distance as possible. Silent marches, he added, are another way to “bear witness” while reducing the risk of transmission.