The chaos, looting and unrest over the death of George Floyd plays out across in a besieged nation where a coronavirus pandemic had confined most Americans at home for months.
This convergence of national ills — police brutality, racism and a deadly contagion — is now prompting warnings that mounting protests could exacerbate the spread of a virus that has already disproportionately impacted communities of color.
“You have a right to demonstrate. You have the right to protest. God bless America,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his coronavirus briefing Saturday.
“You don’t have a right to infect other people. You don’t have a right to act in a way that’s going to jeopardize public health.”
As the death of the unarmed and handcuffed African American man at the hands of Minneapolis police leads to protests, fires and clashes across the country, Cuomo and other officials have a message for demonstrators — Wear a mask.
“Even if you think you’re a superhero because you’re young and you’re strong, you can get it and then infect someone else,” Cuomo said of the virus. “So it’s just wholly irresponsible… You can have an opinion but there are also facts, and you’re wrong not to wear a mask.”
The protests, expected to continue through the weekend, have been especially violent in Floyd’s hometown of Minneapolis, where demonstrators seem to have outnumbered police for days — burning buildings and cars and firing guns in the night.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she understood the sadness and anger in the community but cautioned protesters that Minneapolis and St. Paul remain a hotspot for the spread of Covid-19.
“This is essential not only to protect themselves but also to protect their loved ones and the larger community,” she said in a statement. “This includes wearing masks when in public and maintaining social distancing as much as possible.”
Minnesota’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 1,000 this week, according to the state health department. Malcolm said the state was “one of the communities most vulnerable to rapid increases in the spread of the virus” in the nation.
“We are particularly concerned about people coming into the metro area from other parts of the state and from outside Minnesota who may not be aware of this,” she said. “We are also concerned about the continued disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on people of color in our state.”
CNN medical analyst Dr. James Phillips, a physician and assistant professor at George Washington University Hospital, stressed the importance for protesters to protect themselves.
“This can be done in a relatively safe manner by trying to distance yourself and wearing those masks,” he said Saturday.
“But understanding that shouting and cheering loudly, that does produce a lot of droplets and aerosolization that can spread the virus to people. So it’s important to remember, in the middle of a tinder box that is America right now and with all these protests taking place, we can’t lose sight of the fact there’s a deadly virus circulating and it can still spread.”