By Kait Schuster, Staff Writer, May 2020
The COVID-19 outbreak has sparked concern that it might spread too far and fast before scientists find a way to stop it. This pandemic has been responsible globally for over 4 million confirmed cases and 300,000 deaths. As of late April, the US is the most affected country, with over 1 million confirmed cases and 56,803 deaths. In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, many state governors have implemented a wide variety of restrictions to protect the public. Some measures include: issuing mandatory stay-at-home orders, closing schools and non-essential businesses, restricting travel, social distancing, and wearing cloth masks in public.
While most people understand the need for such restrictions, others have vehemently opposed them. A wave of planned anti-lockdown demonstrations have broken out nationwide to protest the efforts of state governments to combat the pandemic.
These protests may be politically driven, as many events have been inspired by a protest planned by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, two rightwing lobbying groups with links to the Trump administration. In Lansing, Michigan, a protest was devised to cause gridlock in the city and ended up dangerously blocking the entrance to a local hospital. After that initial protest, some other states followed suit.
In California, demonstrators converged on the state capitol in Sacramento waving American flags and holding signs with messages that ranged from “You Don’t Own Me” to “Give My Daughter Her Senior Year” to “My Constitutional Rights are Essential.” Participants seen on a Facebook livestream generally were not practicing social distancing or wearing masks.
In North Carolina, hundreds of largely unmasked protesters crammed together in defiance of social distancing guidelines. One of the organizers could not attend two rallies because she tested positive for the disease and was required to self-quarantine.
In Washington state, thousands of people, without masks, showed up at a demonstration protesting Governor Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation to shut down businesses, close restaurants and bars, and ban large gatherings. They claimed these measures were beyond his constitutional authority, as the First Amendment states that Congress cannot restrict the right of people to peaceably assemble.
While at first glance this seems true, a deeper interpretation of the Constitution reveals that authorities may prevent or stop gatherings that clearly pose a threat to public safety. Since COVID-19 is an airborne virus spread by people, large gatherings present a significant public safety risk and for some, could be deadly.
In Washington, D.C., several people dressed in hospital scrubs and masks stood defiantly in the middle of the street to block a drive-by protest rally to make their point about staying home. Health care workers in Colorado and Pennsylvania also staged counter-protests against anti-quarantine rallies that continue to spread across the country. Several nurses gathered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a protest against stay-at-home orders was taking place. The nurses carried signs stating, “I stayed at work for you, please stay at home for us.” They recognize that these types of rallies could cause a surge in COVID-19 cases by defying social distancing recommendations. But just how dangerous are these rallies?
According to Eric Feigl-Ding, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, you can expect a surge in COVID-19 positive cases 2-4 weeks after these types of large public gatherings. It takes a few days for the virus to incubate before symptoms may appear.
Overall, these protests were small and few compared to the vast majority of Americans supporting social distancing and other measures designed to keep them safe. The mass reluctance to quickly re-open society is largely driven by the fear that without proper guidelines in place, another surge –– perhaps even worse –– could occur, resulting in even more deaths.