Protesting is one thing. Protesting during a pandemic is another.

By Korin Miller
June 04, 2020
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For months, Americans have been urged to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But following the death of George Floyd—a 46-year-old black man killed by police on May 25—it soon became clear that the pandemic outside couldn't stop protestors from rallying against generations of injustice.

Most protestors are aware of the added risks of coming together right now—time and again, we've been told that COVID-19 is spread through close, person-to-person contact—but the benefits of any potential social change have outweighed the fear of the virus. Still, political leaders, doctors, and public health experts warn that these protests could trigger a surge in coronavirus cases, only adding to the nearly 1.9 million cases and more than 100,000 deaths the US has already experienced.

Regardless, it's your American right to protest—and if you do decide to join organized rallies, there are ways to keep yourself as safe as possible in public, like wearing face masks, carrying hand sanitizer, and continuing to practice social distancing as much as possible (when you're protesting and when you're not). But once you get home from taking advantage of your First Amendment rights, there are some extra precautions you can take, according to infectious disease doctors, to make sure you keep yourself and those around you as healthy as possible.

Try to self-quarantine for two weeks

Once you get home from a protest—especially a large gathering for an extended period of time where you weren't able to practice social-distancing—you should consider self-quarantining for 14 days, the maximum incubation period for COVID-19. That's an official recommendation from various public health offices in cities with large protests—both the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Chicago Department of Public Health have suggested as such.

It may seem like an extreme step—and maybe even impossible, if you want to protest more than once every two weeks—but Dr. Adalja says it’s a smart step to take. “These are mass gatherings—people are yelling, shouting, and chanting, which creates respiratory droplets. Those can contain COVID-19,” he says. Many people are unable to practice social distancing at a protest, and that gives the virus the opportunity to spread, he says. And, at protests that turn violent, the use of tear gas and pepper spray can cause people to cough, producing even more respiratory droplets.

“If you were at a protest and [you] were unable to socially distance yourself, you have to think about yourself as being potentially exposed,” Dr. Adalja says, adding that the same is true for anyone attending a mass gathering right now. As a result, he says, “some individuals may need to self-quarantine for 14 days.”

Keep in mind, however, that this drastic step may not be necessary if you were part of a smaller protest—say, if you and a small, organized group shared signs on the side of the road in a small town (hey, everything counts!). "If people are social distancing and wearing a mask while protesting, they should be OK," Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. "If not, they should self-quarantine for two weeks."

Monitor yourself for COVID-19 symptoms

Whether you've decided to self-quarantine after protesting, or feel that you were safe enough that you don't have to, you should be on the lookout for symptoms of coronavirus.

Those symptoms usually show up anywhere from two to 14 days after you've been exposed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you start feeling any of the below symptoms, it's best to call your doctor who can instruct you on what to do next.

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

It's also important to remember that just because you don't feel sick, it doesn't mean you're not contagious. Those with COVID-19 can also be asymptomatic, and you may be contagious even before you start showing symptoms, if you develop any at all (just another reason why it's wise to self-quarantine after exposure).

Consider getting tested for COVID-19

According to a press release from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health—the same one that suggested self-quarantining for 14 days after attending a protest—you may also want to consider getting tested for COVID-19 seven days after exposure. Additionally, "those seeking testing do NOT need to identify that they were at a protest but instead should say they were near someone who may have had COVID-19."

The Minnesota Department of Health, too, recommends "any Minnesotan who has attended a protest, vigil, or community clean-up get tested for #COVID19," according to a recent tweet from the department. "If you start to feel sick, get tested right away. If you do not feel sick, get tested as soon as you can, but no later than 5-7 days after the event."

It's important to remember that not every area where protesting is going on has these specific recommendations, but it's wise to consider, regardless of where you're located. Additionally, if you learn that someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 was at a protest you attended, if you receive a call from a contact tracer, or if you develop symptoms, Dr. Adalja says you’ll definitely want to get tested.

Ultimately, it's your decision to go out and protest—and even if you want to help but don't feel comfortable doing so in large groups right now, there are ways to make a difference from your home. But heeding the above suggestions can help you protect your health as you fight for rights. Just do your best out there.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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