For much of the last four months, Americans have been urged to limit their time outside the home and avoid non-essential outings to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But after George Floyd’s murder sparked worldwide outrage about police brutality, people of all backgrounds took to the streets to stand up—and at press time, continue to stand up—against systemic racism. Still, the risk of COVID-19 continues, and it may take several more weeks to see the effects these protests have on coronavirus case numbers.
If you want to make your voice heard at a protest but are confused about what it means for your COVID-19 risk, here are some expert-backed tips for staying as safe as possible.
1. Know that there is a risk, but there’s also a purpose behind it.
No activity comes 100% risk-free right now, especially when it involves being surrounded by other people. “Anytime a group of people gather in a setting where the intensity and duration of exposure is somewhat unpredictable, there is going to be some risk,” says Nasia Safdar, M.D., medical director of infection control at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, WI. “Having said that, you really have to weigh it against the importance of the protests.”
Ultimately, every individual will have to decide for themselves whether protesting is worth the risk of COVID-19 transmission. “Every protestor must consider both community and individual risk,” says Mitchell Li, M.D., emergency physician and Medical Director/Founder at Thrive Direct Care in Chicago. “Even the very young and otherwise healthy do run a risk of severe and deadly illness if they contract the virus. The risk is not zero.”
Evidence thus far suggests that outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is significantly less likely then indoor transmission, so that’s positive news for protestors. But if you have a chronic medical condition, or are living with a family member who is at high risk for serious illness, you may decide to contribute to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) cause in different ways: by donating money to bail funds and advocacy organizations, calling or emailing your political representatives, or sharing the cause with your family and friends.
2. Try to maintain as much distance as possible.
This may be easier in some settings than others. For instance, if you’re participating in a protest in small-town Ohio, you’ll likely have an easier time staying away from people than if you’re gathering in the streets of Los Angeles. “The more organized a protest can be, the better it is for the attendees,” Dr. Safdar says. “It may not be possible to have six feet of social distancing at all times, but we know that even three feet is better than less than that.” Just because you can’t follow social distancing guidelines to a T doesn’t mean you should abandon them all together.
A related benefit to attending organized protests is that there may be medical professionals helping to oversee them. Dr. Li has been volunteering with a group of physicians, nurses, and EMTs to set up tents at Chicago BLM protests, ready to care for injured or sick protestors. This type of setup allows an extra layer of protection in a crowded setting that ambulances may have trouble reaching. While it doesn’t necessarily lessen your COVID-19 risk, you can feel better knowing there are medical pros on the scene in case things get chaotic.
3. Wear a mask.
You’ve heard this advice, but it continues to be crucially important: Always wear a face covering in public settings. “Face coverings, when worn correctly and universally, protect others around you,” Dr. Li explains. Not only are you setting a good example for others by wearing a mask, but you’re also making those around you feel more comfortable that you aren’t breathing directly on them. And just as you’re wearing a mask, you should expect those around you (and those you attend the protest with) to do the same.
4. Don’t go if you’re sick.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but we’ll say it anyway. Don’t attend a protest if you’re feeling ill in any way! “COVID-19 can be transmitted asymptomatically, but if you do have symptoms, such as fever, cough, or even gastrointestinal symptoms, please stay home and call your doctor,” Dr. Li urges. Dr. Safdar agrees.
“People who have symptoms would want to not participate in the protests,” she says. If someone near you at the protest is coughing loudly, or showing other obvious signs of illness, your best bet is to get as far away from them as you can.
5. Wash your protest clothes afterwards.
We covered this in our guide to outdoor running during coronavirus, and the advice could easily apply here, too. “Washing your hands and changing your clothes immediately after your run [or other outdoor activity] is a good idea,” explained Steven E. Mayer, M.D., sports medicine physician at the Northwestern Medicine Running Medicine Clinic in Warrenville, IL. “I do not feel that it is necessarily high risk, but common sense would indicate that doing so would be smart.” If you feel most comfortable washing your clothes as soon as you get back in the house, this is an easy step you can take to lower your worry.
6. Begin to diligently monitor your symptoms.
Once you’ve been to a protest (or multiple protests), it’s time to be on high alert for symptoms over the next two weeks. “One important thing is to self-monitor yourself for symptoms,” Dr. Safdar suggests. “That includes being really vigilant about even mild symptoms. For some of us, it might even mean taking our temperature twice a day, because a low-grade fever is often associated with COVID-19.” Even if you don’t feel sick, a temperature reading of 100.4 degrees or higher can be a sign of infection.
7. Don’t rush to get tested after protesting.
If you’re wondering, “Should I get tested for COVID-19 now that I’ve been to a protest?,” maybe not so fast. While it’s not inherently a bad idea to get tested, Dr. Safdar explains that it may not be immediately helpful. “If it’s negative, it doesn’t mean much, because you have 14 days after the protest to develop symptoms,” she says. “If it’s negative at one point in time, it doesn’t mean that the following day, for instance, you won’t develop symptoms and become positive.” If you feel sick, it’s worth getting tested, but otherwise you don’t need to rush to a clinic.
And don’t worry about antibody tests for now. “Antibody tests are pretty problematic to interpret, because you don’t know when the exposure occurred,” Dr. Safdar says. It could have been the protests, it could have been at some other point in the past, or it could just be a false positive test, which is an error and doesn’t actually mean you were exposed.” Even if you do test positive for COVID-19 resistant antibodies, the CDC recommends you continue to maintain the same social distancing behaviors in your daily life.
8. Assume you have COVID-19 after protesting.
Unless you were able to maintain six feet of distance from others at the protest, Dr. Li says it’s best to assume you carry the virus. “Everyone who has not been socially distancing should assume that they may have COVID-19 in terms of their interaction with others, even if they have no or mild symptoms,” he notes. “The safest advice is to self-quarantine for 14 days, though this may be impractical.” Do your best to protect those around you from developing infection: wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain your own space in the house as much as you can. And maybe don’t go visit your elderly grandparent or immunocompromised friend.
Your health—and the health of those around you—is equally as important as your voice in this movement. By staying safe, you can fight harder and more effectively for the BLM cause.