Location data: Protesters without masks, PPE may have spread COVID-19 to North, West Michigan

    Conservative protest at Michigan's Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

    Conservatives who didn’t exercise social distancing as they gathered April 15 at the Michigan Capitol to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order might have later spread COVID-19 to smaller communities, according to cell phone location data.

    The protest dubbed “Operation Gridlock,” involved a crowd of about 4,000 people who used their vehicles to slow traffic in downtown Lansing. Some participants claimed they intended to simultaneously protest and maintain social distancing by staying in their vehicles, but several hundred exited their cars and protested directly on the Capitol grounds.

    Committee to Protect Medicare graphic

    Doctors with the Committee to Protect Medicare say those who got out of their vehicles without face masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) and didn’t stand 6 feet apart likely helped spread COVID-19 to smaller communities that aren’t prepared for disease outbreaks.

    New data released Monday by location data firm VoteMap shows a little more than 300 devices equipped with geo-location technology were pinpointed in Lansing on April 15. Votemap pulled location data from devices that had geotagging-capable apps turned on during and after the protest. 

    VoteMap says the location data was anonymized to protect individuals’ privacy. 

    After the protest ended, the mobile phones were tracked across Michigan as their owners dispersed. Several clusters popped up in West and northern Michigan. 

    West Michigan is seeing some of the biggest spikes in COVID-19 right now, with infections set to peak in that region in late May through June. Hospitals in both West and North Michigan are preparing for a wave of COVID-19 patients in early summer. Several are reporting a lack of personal protective equipment, testing materials and ventilators needed to handle larger surges of patients.

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    The data is a “bright red flag” that shows the irresponsible actions of a few hundred people could put medically under-equipped communities at risk of experiencing higher infection rates, according to Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in West Michigan who ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2018.

    “Every public health expert and medical professional has been warning America that people who don’t maintain physical distance could be dispersing a highly contagious, lethal virus into their communities and endangering their neighbors and their loved ones,” Davidson said. “These reckless actions threaten to set back all our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the rate of infections.” 

    VoteMap and the Committee to Protect Medicare plan to release cell phone data later this week analysis from the smaller protest Thursday. 

    C.J. Moore
    C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.