Public health officials in the region are urging people who participate in large protests against police brutality and racism to wear masks and self-isolate for two weeks.
Health officials worry that the sometimes closely packed gatherings will contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. New Jersey’s recorded death toll from COVID-19 grew to 12,049 fatalities on Friday as officials reported that the state has received a total of 163,336 positive COVID-19 test results since March. More than half of the deaths in the state have been related to long-term care facilities. On Friday, the state recorded another 79 deaths due to complications from COVID-19. The state also received another 864 new positive COVID-19 test results for residents on Friday.
In Philadelphia, the city health department on Tuesday asked anyone involved in protests to take precautions like getting tested for the virus even if they wore a mask.
In Princeton, several thousand people attended a peaceful rally on Tuesday. People wore masks and tried to properly social-distance themselves, but sometimes it was not possible. A resident wrote a letter to officials about the issue that night with a link to a story about the Philadelphia recommendations and was told the health department would be issuing guidelines the following day. The resident also wanted to know who issued the permit for the protest. “There was not a permit, as the rally violated the governor’s executive order on mass gatherings. However, it is not the practice of our police department to prevent political speech,” Mayor Liz Lempert told the resident in an email response.
On Wednesday afternoon, the local health department issued a health advisory for protesters. “Gov. Murphy expressed concern about the potential for rapid transmission from a super-spreader within tightly congregated groups of people,” the advisory said. “Covid-19 is a highly contagious virus that can be transmitted by sustained close personal contact, or in a mass gathering, such as the recent protest gatherings across New Jersey. During a protest gathering, people congregate while chanting or shouting, often while standing or moving about near one another. These activities provide an environment where the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as Covid-19, can be easily transmitted.”
Face coverings, social distancing, and personal hygiene practices like handwashing, avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes, and being outdoors are helpful in reducing the risk of transmission, but officials cautioned in the advisory that there is still a risk of transmission when large groups of people are gathered together. Rally attendees were advised to limit close contact with others for the next 14 days, especially people who could be at a greater risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
“If you have attended a recent mass gathering like the protests, you should be aware that you have been in a situation with a heightened risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. To protect yourself and others, you should use a face-covering in public at all times, maintain social distancing and monitor yourself for symptoms for the fourteen days after the date of the mass gathering,” the advisory said. “If you become infected, you could develop COVID-19 anywhere from 2 to 14 days after you were exposed to a person with the virus…Since you are at higher risk of exposure, if you are feeling unwell and experiencing symptoms – even if they are very mild, you should self-isolate, contact your primary care physician, and get tested. You could be contagious. You should notify your doctor or the testing site that you may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus during a mass gathering.”
Much is still uncertain about the spread of the coronavirus. Health experts say the virus is far less likely to be spread outdoors than indoors. Masks also reduce the chance of infected people transmitting the respiratory droplets that contain the virus. But crowds and the length of time an uninfected person is near someone who is infected also increase the risk of transmission.
But many public health experts say that police violence against black people in America also represents a critical public health crisis, and they point out that black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of rates of illness and death.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy said he was moved by the peaceful protests and acknowledged that more needs to be done to dismantle systemic racism. “I don’t want to make light of this, and I’ll probably get lit up by everybody who owns a nail salon in the state,” he said. “But it’s one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening. It’s another to come out in peaceful protest overwhelmingly about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes, and the trail of data points that highlights systemic racism and the stain that slavery still leaves in our country today. I put those into different orbits.”
Planet Princeton has written about area protests over the past week, covering two rallies in Trenton, a protest on Nassau Street on Monday evening, and the large rally in Princeton that drew thousands on Tuesday. Planet Princeton is also posting and will continue to post information on planned events and rallies as they are announced. Some readers have criticized the reporting on the rallies, saying Planet Princeton should not be reporting about them because of COVID-19. Other readers argue that protesters are aware of the risks and should use caution when attending by trying to social distance, and by wearing face masks.
Some people have avoided rallies and protests entirely, deciding that the chance of contracting the coronavirus in a crowd is too high. Others have joined despite the risks.
“I debated with myself. Do I stay safe or do I bear witness to the anguish of blacks across our country,” a reader named Julie wrote in a Princeton community group online discussion. “I chose to bear witness. Twelve more days of self-quarantine, but I am glad I was there kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds with all who were present.”