Protests Abruptly Ended Quarantine. Will They Cause a Second Wave?

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The city sits at a precarious moment.

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New Yorkers dutifully stayed home this spring to slow the spread of coronavirus but a surge of civil unrest days before the city’s tentative reopening could cause another wave of infections this summer.

Tens of thousands of people have been marching city streets demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism after a Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd in custody on May 25. Police repeatedly clashed with protesters in violent encounters at the Barclays Center and in Cadman Plaza while seeking to disperse looters in SoHo, Midtown Manhattan, and the Fordham section of the Bronx.

The chaotic eruption of mass gatherings after nearly three months of lockdown will almost certainly lead to more cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations, public health experts say.

“These large gatherings of people are likely to be super spreader events,” Onyema Ogbuagu, an infectious disease expert at the Yale School of Medicine, told Commercial Observer. “Many people congregating together in close quarters, without recommended six feet of social distancing creates the perfect person-to-person environment for infection.”

Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at the NYU School of Public Health advises people to maintain social distancing at an event and continue to wear masks around seniors and others at risk for COVID complications for two weeks after the protest is over.

“If they do this, they could reduce the likelihood that they pass on COVID-19 if they got it at a protest,” Ompad told CO. “Younger people seem to be more likely to have asymptomatic disease – they can pass on COVID-19 without even knowing they have it.”

Protesters have tried to minimize the risk of catching COVID-19. Some demonstrators donned face masks, goggles, and gloves before marching this week while those participating in vigils held at public parks in Williamsburg and Inwood have been able to keep their distance from others.

But it is not so easy to avoid human contact when marching through narrower roadways. Demonstrators have struggled to maintain six feet of separation from another person when marching in large groups. Plus, the ubiquitous rallying calls at protests can help spread respiratory droplets that can contain high concentrations of the virus.

Confrontations with police officers, who engage in physical contact with people when they scatter crowds, can also lead to viral exposure.

“Police are using dispersants, like tear gas and pepper sprays and those cause irritation to the eyes and nose and produce secretions that could have the virus in them,” Ogbuagu said. “You see people trying to wash off secretions and help each other — that’s a perfect environment for transmission of COVID.”

The thought of increased hospitalizations after the city already recorded 200,000 cases and 21,688 deaths since March terrified Mayor Bill de Blasio, who warned of a COVID resurgence if protesters continued to march.

“I would certainly urge everyone – look, you’ve made your point, it’s time to stay home,” de Blasio said at a press briefing Monday. “If you do go out, please try in any way you can to observe social distancing and keep those face coverings on.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged demonstrators to keep taking public health precautions while marching. He announced the state would allow COVID 19-testing facilities to swab anyone who attended a demonstration.

“Protesters have a civic duty also to be responsible… wear a mask and tell people you may have been exposed to COVID,” Cuomo said at a briefing Thursday in Albany. “If you were at one of those protests, out of an abundance of caution, assume you’re infected. Tell your parents, tell your brother…worry about your…63-year-old grandmother  or 60-year-old parent or uncle or aunt. They can die from this virus and, by the way, you could too.”

Concerns over the coronavirus spread and demonstrations have not altered New York City’s trajectory to begin opening businesses on June 8. As of late last week, the city has met five of the state’s seven metrics that trigger a reopening including a two-week decline in hospitalizations and COVID deaths and a hospitalization rate below two per 100,000 residents. The city hasn’t hired enough contact tracers or reported enough available hospital beds in case coronavirus makes a comeback, but is expected to meet those goals in the coming days.

Manufacturing, construction, and some retail stores are the first businesses to open under the state’s first phase. Those in phase two, including office buildings, real estate services, and restaurants offering outdoor dining, will have to wait until late June to open.

Some business leaders and Republican officials have been demanding the city reopen more quickly now that new coronavirus cases have leveled off. But health experts cautioned against reopening too fast without rigorous testing and tracing in place.

“The pace of reopening and how it will impact the rate of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths matters as well. If you do a fast reopening you have many more of those events than if you have a slow-paced reopening,” said Ogbuagu, who recommended four weeks between phases instead of the state’s two week period.

A slower reopening may happen regardless. Nine days of peaceful protests have been followed by looting — carried out by fringe groups, as reported by the New York Times — that have cost businesses millions. Small businesses in the Bronx’s Fordham neighborhood have been completely decimated by vandals who ransacked their shops while SoHo’s luxury boutiques contended with fires, smashed store windows, and stolen merchandise.

Cuomo and de Blasio bickered over who was responsible for securing the city, with de Blasio rejecting an offer to send in the National Guard and Cuomo excoriating police who “did not do their job last night.” Cuomo later apologized to police leaders while de Blasio imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. ending on the morning of the scheduled reopening.

The city remains on edge. Nearly half a million of the city’s wealthiest residents skipped town during the peak of the pandemic. Many families are contemplating a permanent move to the suburbs if the spread of coronavirus continues unabated. Tourism could ebb over the long term and companies could shrink their workforce in Manhattan if the city gets a reputation for being unhealthy and unsafe.

“We understand there is systemic discrimination in the country and it falls upon all of us to bring about change,” Peebles Corporation chairman and CEO Don Peebles told CO. “If it doesn’t change, it will be very difficult to live and do business in New York City because there will be more disruptions and they will become more frequent.”

“We would not want to invest our money and do business in a lawless environment where within a whim our property could be destroyed without protections that our tax dollars and rights provide us,” Peebles said. “The city leadership has seen fit to allow this significant amount of destruction of property and they have not digested the long-term impacts. No matter how much people want to redistribute wealth there has to be some wealth to redistribute and that comes from entrepreneurship and business.”

Despite all this, New Yorkers continue to march — especially as the city’s institutional leaders support peaceful protests.

Brooklyn Senator Zellnor Myrie, who was pepper sprayed and handcuffed while demonstrating last Friday, wants more health resources and better long-term outcomes for communities of color who have been suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.

“If we are ever to prevent the high levels of suffering we saw from COVID in our communities, we will need to address systemic racism in all of its forms, and that is exactly why people have taken to the streets,” Myrie said.