While many organizers have told protesters to socially distance and wear masks, public health experts fear the Bay Area’s demonstrations could still fuel a rise in COVID-19 infections. That could be particularly devastating to the same black and brown communities most impacted by police brutality.
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"This one is completely different. This energy is different. This vibe is different."
Jon Jacobo was born and raised in the Mission District. He’s also been speaking out against police brutality there for years.
“I've been in the police reform justice movement since they killed our brother, Alex Nieto, here in the Mission District on Bernal Hill,” he says.
A local security guard, Nieto was killed in March 2014, when police officers allegedly mistook his taser for a real gun. The officers said Nieto pointed his taser at them, though a witness disputed their account. Nieto’s parents sued San Francisco over his death and lost.
In the years since, Jacobo says, “we have done meetings with police chiefs, with DAs, with public defenders, with politicians. We've done blue-ribbon panels.” And he’s participated in his fair share of protest movements.
“This one is completely different,” he says. “This energy is different. This vibe is different.”
So when friends and activists from San Francisco’s black communities started reaching out to him, Jacobo says he felt compelled to help organize protests and go to them himself. “We showed up right in front of City Hall,” he says.
As he protested last weekend, he couldn’t stop thinking about something else. “This is not good for COVID,” he says. “The stats for the Latino and black communities are terrible.”
The Risk Of A 'Stark Increase'
After months of sheltering in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, thousands of Bay Area residents are leaving their homes to march against police brutality. Protesters in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and other cities are taking to the streets in solidarity with George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. On May 25, Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes until he died.
While many organizers have told protesters to socially distance and wear masks, Jacobo fears these demonstrations could still fuel a rise in COVID-19 infections, particularly in communities of color. Jacobo one of the leaders of the Latino Task Force for COVID-19, a coalition of community organizers that launched a community testing initiative in the Mission District last month, in conjunction with UCSF and public health officials.
The Task Force tested thousands of residents for the virus. Of those who tested positive, 95 percent of them were Latinx and none of them were White. A separate study found that 84 percent of the hospitalized COVID-19 cases at San Francisco General are Latinx, even though Latinx people are only 15 percent of the city’s population.
“Latinos are overrepresented in just the amount of cases that we have,” he says. “But for the black community, it's just deadly. It is just significantly more deadly.”
According to a recent report by American Public Media’s Research Lab, the COVID-19 mortality rate among black Americans is more than double the rate among White, Asian and Latinx people.
“If we know that this is in the Latino community, in the black communities, and these are the communities that are uprising and meeting together, this could definitely lead to a stark increase,” Jacobo says.
Weighing the Risks
Public health experts and epidemiologists are also worried that the mass protests could fuel the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. George Rutherford, UCSF’s Head of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, has been following COVID-19 since early January. When he saw protesters on the news, he was actually a little relieved.
“Most of them had masks on,” he says. “Would that on Memorial Day, everybody who went to the beach had a mask on.”
The protests are happening outside, which also helps. Rutherford says the virus spreads more efficiently indoors.
That said, the protests are still an opportunity for the virus to spread. “The stuff I was seeing didn't appear very socially distanced,” says Rutherford. “The second thing is that people were yelling.”
“If you're yelling or singing,” he added, “Then you're going to be expelling more particles, right?”
Crowded, loud, outdoor events like this have fueled epidemics before. In September 1918, the city of Philadelphia organized a massive parade in support of World War I, despite warnings from doctors about the ongoing influenza pandemic. 200,000 people attended the parade. Within 72 hours, every single hospital bed in Philadelphia was full.
Rutherford points out that some protesters are contending with an additional risk: the use of pepper spray and tear gas. Those chemicals create tearing, he says, which could make protesters rub their faces more, potentially moving the virus from their hands to their eyes.
Tear gas and pepper spray also make people cough and wheeze, which could further accelerate COVID-19 infection rates.
“It wreaks havoc on the lungs,” argues Cat Brooks, the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network and a veteran Bay Area activist. “[It’s] not us, really, that needs to change our behavior. It's law enforcement.”
Public health officials have urged the police to stop using tear gas during the pandemic. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department says the force has not deployed tear gas during these protests. I reached out to the Oakland Police Departments to ask if they planned to restrict their use of tear gas but did not hear back from them before publication.
'Know Thyself And Know Thy Loved Ones'
In the meantime, activists like Jon Jacobo and Cat Brooks have advice for community members who feel morally compelled to protest but are concerned about the health risks.
“I mean, I would say first and foremost, know thyself and know thy loved ones, right?” says Jacobo. “Those are two solid commandments you can run with.
“If you yourself have preexisting conditions or things that put you at risk, then it is, I think, your obligation to make sure that you're okay. Because if you're okay, then we have you in the fight for the long run. And that's important.”
If you’re concerned about COVID-19, Jacobo says there are organizations or protester bail funds you can donate to. Car caravans are also an option.
Jacobo is planning to keep protesting in person. Cat Brooks has struggled with that decision. First, she decided against it. She says she’s concerned for her health; she has a partial lung and asthma. Her 14-year-old daughter, Jadyn Polk, made a different choice.
“She was like, mama, I want to stand,” says Brooks. “For me as a parent, I was like, ‘Okay, this is what you've been trained for, boo.’ And so I told her, ‘I was like, you keep six feet and putting your mask.’ And she rubbed my back and she said, ‘I’m coming back to you. I would never endanger your life.’”
Jadyn Polk spent Monday afternoon marching through Oakland in a massive protest organized by local students. “I wanted to be there and I wanted to support my community because I have the ability to do that.”
“I'm glad, personally, that my mom's safe and at home,” she says. She plans to keep protesting and live apart from her mom to limit her exposure. Before she moves back in, she plans to go through a two-week quarantine and get tested for COVID-19.
“As much as we should be there as a community for everything that's going on right now, it's not worth more black and brown bodies being killed because of the coronavirus,” she says.
Polk and her mom agreed this would be safer. But within the time it took to report this story, Brooks changed her mind and decided she had to protest in person, too. She’s a co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, and her organization called for a mass protest against Alameda County’s curfew on Wednesday night. Brooks says the political stakes are just too high to stay at home.