In Minnesota, where George Floyd’s death first sparked mass protests, cases of COVID-19 are steadily decreasing

By Julie Mazziotta
June 22, 2020 05:59 PM
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Protesters in Boston
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The nationwide protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed in police custody led to concerns about a spike in COVID-19 cases. But while parts of the U.S. are seeing record-breaking numbers of new infections, there is “no evidence” that protests led to increased cases, researchers have found.

The mass protests against racial injustice began in Minneapolis after Floyd was killed in the city on May 25 and spread throughout the country by the following weekend. With thousands of protesters gathering in close quarters on city streets, public health officials and political leaders worried that the protests could become “super-spreader events,” as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said on May 31.

But nearly a month later, cities with large protests have not seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, and many are actually seeing their numbers go down.

In Minnesota, new cases of COVID-19 hit their peak on May 23, with 840 new infections, and that number has gone steadily down ever since, according to The New York Times tracking data. Over the last week, the number of new cases in the state have gone down by about half. On Monday, the state reported four new deaths from the virus, the lowest since April 13.

People hold signs and protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty

Health officials in the state said Wednesday that of 8,500 protesters who have been tested for COVID-19, the positivity rate is just 0.99 percent.

“We’re delighted that we are not seeing a huge increase in cases,” Kris Ehresmann, the infectious disease division director at the Minnesota Department of Health, said at a media briefing, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Looking at nationwide statistics, a new study that has not been peer-reviewed from the National Bureau of Economic Research used anonymous cell phone tracking data and data from the Centers for Disease Control on new coronavirus cases in 315 cities to determine if protests had an effect on the infection rate. No association was found.

“We find no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than two and a half weeks following protest onset,” the researchers wrote. “We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.”

The researchers acknowledged that the protests had several factors that could lead to increased transmission — people in close proximity, chanting or screaming that could spread respiratory droplets, use of pepper spray or tear gas by law enforcement that could cause coughing — but they instead found that the protests led more people to stay at home, and that those who did attend the protests likely benefited from wearing masks and being outside.

Protesters gather in New York City
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Still, health officials are saying that it is tough to nail down the source new COVID-19 infections as the protests coincided with the reopening of many states.

“What’s really hard is the issue of communities opening and cities beginning to loosen restrictions at the same time these protests are happening,” Steve Pergam, an infection control expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the WSJ. “We have to be careful about not pointing fingers.”

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