Report: BLM protests have not contributed to COVID-19 spread

John Davidson | Ken Coleman

John Davidson drove 45 miles from his home in Ann Arbor to participate in Tuesday’s Detroit Will Breathe in Northwest Detroit to push back against police brutality. 

It was another demonstration led by the newly formed organization that has taken place nearly every day since May 29 following the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Davidson, who is white, believes that marching is vitally important — even if it is in 93-degree weather and in what was one of America’s early hotbeds for COVID-19.

“We believe in standing up for the rights of Black people, specifically,” Davidson said. “They should be treated fairly in this country.” 

When asked whether he was concerned about coronavirus spread during the march, Davidson was even more resolute.

John Davidson | Ken Coleman

“It’s a scary time for everyone right now, but it’s been a scary time for Black people for a long time,” he added. “You don’t get to pick your time to stand up for what is right. So, you just put a mask on and hope for the best.”

Black Lives Matters protests have been carried out in thousands of cities across the country and the world. They have attracted hundreds, and at times, thousands of people. Social distancing has not always been practiced, especially at the larger protests, although many protesters have worn face masks. 

Some Republicans, including U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have claimed last month that spikes in the number of coronavirus cases nationwide have, in part, occurred due to demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter.

“When I looked at that drone view of [Los Angeles], where it was almost a mile-long shoulder-to-shoulder of people and they’re expressing, they’re vocal … and now we’re finding that’s the easiest way to transmit to one another, the long periods of time next to one another,” McCarthy said. 

However, a recently released national working paper shows the protests have not contributed to the spread of COVID-19.  

“We demonstrate that cities which had protests saw an increase in social distancing behavior for the overall population relative to cities that did not,” reads the report called, “Black lives matter protests, social distancing and COVID-19.” 

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The paper is published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. “In addition, we find no evidence that net COVID-19 case growth differentially rose following the onset of Black Lives Matter protests, and even modest evidence of a small longer-run case growth decline,” the authors write.

Reports authors are: Dhaval M. Dave of Bentley University’s Department of Economics; Andrew I. Friedson of University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Economics; Kyutaro Matsuzawa of San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies; Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University Department of Economics’ Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies; and Samuel Safford of San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies. 

The paper uses newly collected data on protests in 315 of the largest U.S. cities to estimate the impacts of mass protests on social distancing and COVID-19 case growth. It includes Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

“Furthermore, we find no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset,” the report reads. “We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.”

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Health experts say that people are significantly less likely to get the coronavirus while outside as opposed to being in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. A World Health Organization study also found that wearing masks can stop the spread of COVID-19 up to 85%.

Michigan public health officials tell the Advance they don’t believe the BLM protests have resulted in coronavirus spread at this point.

“At this time, we have not linked any clusters of illness to any events in the state, including protests,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesperson Lynn Sutfin.

From a public health standpoint, Denise Fair, Detroit Health Department chief public health officer, had concerns about the mass gathering and has been “keenly focused” on protest activity to monitor for possible COVID-19 spread.

Jae Bass | Ken Coleman photo

“We anticipated a bump in the numbers given some participants wore no masks and social distancing proved challenging,” Fair said. “To date, we have seen no significant increase in the number of cases attributed to protests occurring in the city.”

Jae Bass, a 24-year old Detroit resident who has participated in many demonstrations in Detroit since May 29, said that he is concerned about COVID-19, but he believes that protesters understand the importance of social distancing and have largely adhered to advice of health officials. Bass added that many of the Detroit Will Breathe leaders are being tested regularly. He has been tested three times over the last 40 days of protesting.  

“I have to 100% be mindful of monitoring my health, but I’m out here because I have a daughter and she is 4 years old,” Bass said. “So, I have to be healthy [for her.]”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.