Research shows protests did not cause spike in COVID-19 cases

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, anti-racism protests have been held in more than 300 U.S. cities. Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread across the country — and many health officials have expressed concern that protesters in close proximity are accelerating the spread of the virus.

A team of economists have taken the first systematic look at this issue and published their findings in a 60-page paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper, which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, concludes that the protests did not cause a significant increase in COVID-19 infections. They state that there is “no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset.”

The findings are supported by COVID-19 testing data in several populous cities where demonstrations took place. For instance, the Minneapolis Department of Health reported that more than 15,000 people were tested at centers set up in communities affected by the protests, and 1.7% of tests were positive — well below the statewide average of about 3.6%, per The Washington Post.

In fact, only one of the 13 cities that took part in the earliest wave of protests after Memorial Day had an increase in COVID-19 cases that would fit the patterns — Phoenix, where Gov. Doug Ducey decided to end Arizona’s stay-at-home order on May 15 and relax business constraints. According to CNBC, 10 days after Arizona residents ignored social distancing advice and descended en masse into Phoenix-area bar districts, the state saw a large increase of new cases and hospitalizations.

And NPR reported on June 24 that parties, not protests, are believed to have caused coronavirus spikes in Washington state.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

“We did have a rally in Bellingham, which is our county seat, and there was also a protest, and we have not been able to connect a single case to that rally or to the protest, and what we’re finding is in large part that’s due to the use of masks,” said Erika Lautenbach, the director of the Whatcom County Health Department. “Almost everyone at the rally was wearing a mask, and it’s really a testament to how effective masks are in preventing the spread of this disease.”

Lautenbach added, “We’re finding that the social events and gatherings, these parties where people aren’t wearing masks, are our primary source of infection.”

The study’s lead author, Dhaval Dave of Bentley University, told AP, “In many cities, the protests actually seemed to lead to a net increase in social distancing, as more people who did not protest decided to stay off the streets.”

“When considering the results’ implications for the entire population,” the authors write in the NBER paper, “public speech and public health did not trade off against each other in this case.”