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Protesting During A Pandemic: An Epidemiologist Shares Tips For Staying Safe

Joy Powers
Protesters march along Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood.

The demonstrations erupting in cities around the country have brought thousands of people into the streets. They’re chanting, singing, and shouting in protest of police brutality. And as each word is articulated, they’re spreading minuscule water droplets into the air.

That’s a problem. Our communities are still in the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic, and many people are still being infected. So how can people demonstrate while maintaining their safety?

"When you're walking, put your arms out at arm length and try to make sure you're at least both arm lengths away from everybody. At least you're going in one direction, so you're not face-to-face. Wear your masks and bring hand sanitizer," says Dr. Laura Cassidy. She's the research director for the Institute for Health & Equity at the Medical College of Wisconsin. 

Since the protests take place outside, she says that's helpful because confined spaces can spread disease more quickly. But she urges people to still wear face masks, particularly if they're yelling because that can spread water droplets farther. For people who are protesting in cars, she says they shouldn't be packing cars full of people who don't live with one another, or the confined space can make transmission more likely.

READ: Tear-Gassing Protesters During An Infectious Outbreak Called 'A Recipe For Disaster'

There are also concerns about police weaponry and chemical agents that have been deployed against protesters. Milwaukee police officers have used tear gas against protesters, which could increase the spread of coronavirus.

"If tear gas is being thrown, probably the first reaction is to wipe your eyes, perhaps to remove your mask or move it around. And it also creates chaos, where people might bump into each other, they might touch each other more, they may be running," Cassidy explains. 

There's also evidence that tear gas can weaken the lungs, making people who are exposed more likely to get the virus. 

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.