Will Protests Cause an Uptick in Cases?

A number of policymakers and others have raised the concern that protest activity will drive an uptick in COVID-19 cases. There are excellent reasons to protest, and our newsletter from earlier this week discussed how to protest as safely as possible. If you do go out to protest, you might consider getting tested a few days later to avoid spreading the virus. Testing is (thankfully) increasingly available.

But the question remains: stepping back from individual choices, is it likely that we’ll see cases come out of these protests?

Stepping back and thinking about the virus mechanisms, it seems very likely that there will be some SARS-CoV-2 transmission during protests. People are yelling — a good way to transmit droplets in the air — and in close quarters with others. There are many, many people together. We’ve been fairly isolated, and now we’re seeing gatherings of thousands of people. All that additional contact gives the virus a chance to spread. And it is likely that it will, at least some.

But there are open questions as to how much spread there will be. Among them:

  • Many protesters are wearing masks and doing what they can to socially distance. Relative to a non-distanced, no-mask protest, the transmission will be lower. It could be a lot lower.
  • There has been a lot of recent discussion about “superspreader” events (we wrote about it here and the authors of a recent paper cover it here). On the one hand, protests are a natural candidate for this kind of event. On the other hand, nearly all of these events were inside (in bars, for example) and they were also isolated. Some weddings are problematic, others are not. The fact that protests are outdoors makes them lower risk. Maybe we will get lucky.
  • We really do not have a good sense of the level of active infection anywhere. We are not doing widespread surveillance testing. Case counts are unreliable because they rely on people showing up to be tested; if a lot of cases are asymptomatic, we’ll miss them. The possible range of infection levels is, quite simply, large. All our models of viral spread depend on knowing how many people in the population start out infected. And we simply do not know right now.

In addition, we should note that it may be very hard to figure out if any upticks we see in cases are a result of protests, since many states have started reopening precisely at the same time. Is it protests or restaurants? It will take more data and surveillance than we are likely to have available to answer this.

What can we say here?

  • If you choose to protest, wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer. This will lower your personal chance of infection.
  • It seems very likely some infections will result from protests.
  • States and cities should make an effort to make testing available widely, so we can better monitor what is going on with infection rates in the wake of the protests. It is a very different thing if people find out they are infected and isolate than if they leave the protest and bring the virus home.