Ignore the naysayers: Why the protests for Black lives did not boost COVID-19 numbers

On July 13 of this year, the Twitter account of Prager University (which is actually a conservative YouTube channel, not a real educational institution) posted a photo of a protest for Black lives accompanied with the following caption:

There’s a lot to unpack here. While this is only one tweet from one account, many in the conservative media have echoed its claims. I could certainly write a lengthy article concerning this single tweet, but I want to focus specifically on a trope that has become common in right-wing discourse: In this post I will explore the validity of the claim that protests for Black lives have spread COVID-19, and what these repetitions of the claim say about the political discourse of the United States.

I first want to concede that merely asking whether protests could lead to higher COVID-19 rates is perfectly fine. After months of lockdown orders, quarantining, and travel restrictions, it’s only reasonable for people to be curious about whether large gatherings of people could be problematic. It would be naïve, however, to act as if many people asking about COVID-19 transmissions via the protests for Black lives did not possess ulterior motives. However, for most of this post I will endeavor to answer the question at face value.

In fairness, those who raised this question were in good company with the mainstream press. As noted by liberal media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting on June 10, the bulk of media coverage of the protests involved raising the concern of COVID-19 transmission. The report highlighted examples of this from ABC, USA Today, CNN, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. One can surmise that smaller outlets also raised the issue. 

This report from FAIR also approached the concern of COVID-19 spread with a critical eye:

[…] If we’ve been listening to what epidemiologists have told us about the coronavirus, there are reasons to believe that the protests will not have a major impact on the pandemic’s trajectory.

Most obviously, protests overwhelmingly take place outdoors, and coronavirus transmission occurs overwhelmingly in enclosed spaces. As immunologist Erin Bromage notes, “Of the countries performing contact tracing properly, only a single outbreak has been reported from an outdoor environment (less than 0.3% of traced infections).” One study estimated that outdoor transmission is 19 times less likely than indoor transmission. […]

So far, there’s no sign of any spike related to the BLM protests. In Minnesota, where protests started on May 26, or 15 days ago, average new cases have declined from 704 to 431 per day since then (as of June 9). New York State was averaging 1,468 new cases a day when the protests started on May 28; now it’s averaging 930. These numbers are not so much a defiance of epidemiological observations as they are confirmation.

Critics may point out that this article was published on June 10. That’s barely two weeks after the murder of George Floyd! Given the 14-day incubation period of COVID-19, and the fact that the protests continued past June 10, perhaps more up-to-date data shows a BLM-attributable spike in COVID-19 cases?

Sadly for these critics, that’s not what the data shows.

With nearly a month’s worth of data, a study published in late June by the National Bureau of Economic Research found “no evidence that urban protests reignited Covid-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset.” Despite large protests in New York City, Washington state, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, no spike occurred in those locations.

The aforementioned 60-page NBER study even teased the idea that the protests had the positive side effect of suppressing movement:

Our findings highlight the importance of understanding the behavior of all relevant populations when conducting analysis in the realm of social science in general: the most visible portion of the population is not always the primary driver of the outcome of interest.

Although anti-racism protests are still going strong, the largest protests of this current moment are likely behind us. Given that they led to no noticeable spike in transmissions, it’s laughable to see Prager U claiming that “The Left is weaponizing #COVID19.”

With all of this talk of protests being “weaponized,” I cannot help but recall the anti-lockdown protests that occurred in mid-May and literally featured people armed with military-grade weaponry. (I am still unsure why they felt that they needed to be armed to the teeth.)

These protests took place mainly from mid-April through early-May. Whereas the protests for Black lives are left-wing, the anti-lockdown protests are solidly of the right. They took aim at states’ restrictions enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many protesters doubted the evidence provided by the medical community concerning the seriousness of the pandemic.

Conservatives who questioned the premise of COVID-19 lockdown measures on the basis that protests for Black lives were allowed noticeably failed to apply that same scrutiny to anti-lockdown protests. To the contrary, conservative outlets–such as Prager U–seemed okay with the anti-lockdown protests.

Photo captured on June 2, 2019.

Cell phone evidence following these anti-lockdown protests suggested that they have led to increases of COVID-19 transmission in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and Florida. The governor of Michigan backed up concerns of anti-lockdown protesters spreading COVID-19 in a leaked call with Vice President Mike Pence. These transmissions were exacerbated by many of these protesters traveling long distances to attend anti-lockdown gatherings.

Before I continue, please do not mistake the arguments in this article for morally equivocating the ideologies between these respective protests. The protests for Black lives started organically in response to the murder of George Floyd against systemic racism and police brutality. The anti-lockdown protests were astroturfed by gun rights advocates and GOP mega donors.

Another major difference was the stark contrast between the police behavior toward unarmed participants in the protests for Black lives and the armed militants in the anti-lockdown protests.

In any case, the anti-lockdown protests’ COVID-19 numbers versus those of the protests for Black lives’ are not too surprising when you think of it. The protests for Black lives tend to be more left-wing, and polls have found that people on the left tend to take COVID-19 more seriously. Given that Black people in the United States are both more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19 and also more likely to be considered essential workers, it’s not too shocking that a protest for Black lives would involve participants who take precautions more seriously. (Not to mention that if your protest is likely to be targeted by police, you’re more likely to cover your face even if there’s not a pandemic.)

On the other side, the anti-lockdown protests themselves are almost entirely driven by skepticism of the scientific and medical community. People on the right-wing tend to not take COVID-19 as seriously. Those who watch Fox News–the United States’ most-watched cable news network–are also at a particular risk for COVID-19 misinformation.

As I mentioned above, there was nothing wrong with raising the concern that the protests for Black lives, while completely necessary, could increase COVID-19 rates. However, people (such as Dennis Prager) and publications (such as the New York Post) with racist inclinations are likely not asking these questions in good faith.

I highlighted this dynamic in my last post:

It reminds me a bit of the debate over whether the United States should establish English as the official language. These initiatives are pushed by racist groups not only to fear-monger about immigrants, but also to lobby for harsh immigration changes. Yet every time they come up, you see no shortage of naïve takes from “centrists” about the practicality of having a national language, as if pragmatic concerns are the driving force behind anti-immigrant groups’ proposals.

Folks asking questions in good faith should take care to do so in a way that doesn’t give partisan hacks an undeserved signal boost.

To put it simply: the Black lives protests did not increase COVID-19 transmission rates; the anti-lockdown protests did. Police brutality, structural racism, and COVID-19 are all serious issues that require the public’s attention. When bad faith actors manipulate political discourse, it undermines our ability to create an informed populous with the capacity to make sound decisions.