Public health experts who spoke to The New York Times this weekend have expressed concern that the use of tear gas and pepper spray as crowd control methods at protests against police brutality could lead to an increase in the spread of novel coronavirus.
Coronavirus is spread from person to person through droplets ejected from the body when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes. According to The New York Times, both tear gas and pepper spray cause people to sneeze and cough. They also increase the secretion of respiratory fluids in the nose and mouth. If protesters are coughing and sneezing a lot because they’ve been hit with tear gas or pepper spray, it could greatly increase the chances of spreading the novel coronavirus.
This is especially true because people at protests typically stand very close to each other in big crowds. Public health experts that spoke to The New York Times stated that even if protesters are wearing masks, they may not be protected from the virus because they’re all standing so close together in such a large crowd.
???? Reminder: your right to protest hasn't gone away just because of social distancing orders.
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— NYCLU (@NYCLU) May 29, 2020
Though many politicians spoke out asking protesters to wear masks, not all of the people who attended local protests chose to wear masks, The New York Times reported. Politicians and public health officials also asked protesters to respect social distancing practices, but pictures of the large crowds protesting in several cities have shown that social distancing measures are not being followed at many protests. The New York Times also reported that when trying to do crowd control at protests, police often corral protesters together and direct them to specific places, which also poses a problem for maintaining social distancing.
Speaking to The New York Times, Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian who specifically studies pandemics, expressed his concerns that people would not be vigilant while protesting. He said that while emotions are running high and chaotic situations are playing out, people aren’t likely to pay attention to who’s wearing a mask and who’s not or whether they’re maintaining six feet of distance.
Markel also told The New York Times that the shouting that typically happens at protests is another risk factor for spreading coronavirus. The virus can be spread through the droplets that are expelled when people talk, so people shouting slogans during the protests could increase the risk of transmitting novel coronavirus.
Some of the public health experts that spoke to The New York Times weren’t as concerned as others about the transmission of the novel coronavirus at protests. They pointed out that the virus disperses in the air fairly quickly, so the risk of transmission decreases because the protesters are outside and many are wearing masks.
Massive crowds broke stay-home-orders and gathered in several U.S. cities to protest police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd only four days after the death toll from coronavirus surpassed 100,000.