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Protesting During Coronavirus Pandemic Worth The Risk, Some Say

Protesters during the Black Lives Matter rally in South Tampa on Saturday carried signs including some that called for the defunding of police.
Julio Ochoa/WUSF Public Media
Protesters wore masks as they marched through the streets of South Tampa on Saturday.

Linda Breen has been self-isolating for months. She's 69 and has a respiratory issue that she says puts her at risk if she were to catch the coronavirus.

When she meets with friends, they sit eight feet apart. She says just last week she went to a restaurant for the first time. She sat alone in a booth.

A day later she joined thousands of people at a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Tampa.

Breen stood by herself along the perimeter covering her nose and mouth with a cloth facemask. She took a few steps back when a reporter approached for an interview.

Attending the rally was a big step but she said it was more about black lives than her own.

“My decision was if people got too close to me or weren't wearing masks I wasn't going to stay,” Breen said.

The killing of George Floyd has gripped the nation for more than three weeks. For many, it was a jolt that pulled them out of their pandemic-induced social isolation and onto the streets where they have marched elbow to elbow with strangers.

But as cases of the coronavirus surge in Florida and other states, protesters and health experts are concerned about the impact that these sudden mass gatherings are having.

As the Black Lives Matter rally in Tampa turned to a march, maintaining social distancing became much more difficult.

Thousands of people spilled onto Bayshore Boulevard, becoming a unified mass, walking and chanting in time.

That lack of social distancing is what Breen worried about. But is there an elevated threat of catching the coronavirus at protests?  

Scientists say there likely is.

Protesters pause at an intersection during a march through south Tampa.
Credit Julio Ochoa / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Protesters pause at an intersection during a march through south Tampa.

Protesters do have a few things working in their favor. The fact that the demonstrations are outdoors helps. Evidence shows the coronavirus spreads more easily inside. And studies show that masks can help reduce the spread of the virus. 

But University of South Florida Health Professor Marissa Levine says shouting in close proximity is not good. 

“If you're shouting you may bypass the effectiveness of your face covering,” Levine said. “And I'm not telling people not to shout because I know they are passionate about these issues, but they may want to make sure they have a buffer around them.”

She says a recent surge in cases in Florida is not being attributed to the protests -- yet.

But that may change soon. 

That's because there's typically a three-week lag from the time people start going back out into public and when new cases start surfacing.  

“What I worry about is that the impact of the protests is only just starting,” Levine said. “We're already on a pretty steep upswing in cases and if the protests add to that it could continue to go up pretty steeply.”

Hillsborough County health officials who track coronavirus say they haven’t yet tied any of the area's new cases to the protests. However, they say more young people are testing positive for the virus and a majority of the protesters are in that demographic.

And while young people are not at a high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, Levine says they do contribute to the spread of the disease.

“And that just means that we're going to have a lot more disease in our community and the chance of people who are at higher risk being exposed is going to go up,” Levine said.

That's part of the reason why Ali Olinsky brought a stack of surgical masks to the Tampa rally.

As a nurse in a local operating room, Olinsky knows what can happen if the disease overwhelms hospitals.

She was pleased with what she saw at the protest.

“I do see everyone wearing masks,” Olinski said. “I think that's the most important thing. I've maybe brought about 50 of these and I think I've only handed out 15 or 20. With all these people I think that no one really needs them, which is great.” 

Amanda Howell, left, and Michè Wallace sit on a bench at the perimeter of a Black Lives Matter rally in South Tampa on Saturday.
Credit Julio Ochoa / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Amanda Howell, left, and Michè Wallace sit on a bench at the perimeter of a Black Lives Matter rally in South Tampa on Saturday.

Michè Wallace and her friend Amanda Howell wore masks and took other precautions like sitting off by themselves, away from the crowd during the rally.

“We were just talking about it. I've got Lysol wipes I've got anti-bacteria, I've got masks,” Wallace said. “I want to be up there but I'm afraid to be up there. I still want to social distance. I still want to make sure that I'm safe. Coronavirus is real.”

But she says the movement that brought about these protests is also real. And while sitting at home is safer, Wallace says she's been inspired to call for change. And in this case, she says the risk is worth it.

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