A guide to protesting during a pandemic

Let your message catch like fire. Just don’t catch the virus.

Protesting has always been risky business. The current situation in the US, with people in all 50 states standing up to racism and police brutality, is no exception. But since we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, these demonstrations have an extra layer of risk.

If you want to support the cause from home, you can help by donating to organizations and raising awareness of the issues that ignited the protests in the first place. But if you want to be a part of the movement by taking to the streets, there are ways to minimize your chances of catching COVID-19.

It’s impossible to be completely safe from infection. But being careful and prepared will allow you to freely exercise your First Amendment rights in the safest way possible, while also protecting your community from the novel coronavirus.

The basics: time and place

At a protest, the two most important factors you’ll be dealing with are how long you stay and whether the demonstration is in an open or closed space. It’s all about managing risk.

The longer you stay, the more likely you are to be infected if there’s someone with the disease in attendance. Closed premises—such as an auditorium or a subway platform—are worse than open-air locations, since they don’t allow proper air circulation.

If the protest you want to go to is indoors, you may want to skip it. And since there’s no particular amount of time that makes it safe to attend any large gathering (no matter where it is), plan the duration of your stay beforehand and stick to it.

Keep doing what you’re doing—and then some

No matter where you go during this pandemic, you should be taking precautions to protect yourself and others. These include wearing a mask at all times and either washing your hands when you touch something or someone, or wearing disposable surgical gloves.

At a protest, you should follow these rules even more rigorously. Without a mask, your chants for justice or inspiring speech will spray drops of saliva onto whatever’s nearby, including people’s skin and faces. Yes, this is gross, but because many COVID-19 carriers don’t know they’re infected—and you may be one of them—it also increases the likelihood of spreading the disease.

In the event you come into contact with tear gas—even a small amount—your body’s natural response will be to get rid of it by coughing and sneezing. This, in turn, will send droplets from your mouth and nose into the open air—unless you’re wearing a mask.

A face mask will filter out most tear gas particles, but even if you do inhale some, you should not take it off—make sure you move to safety first. When you’re away from the gas, uncover your face and wash it with copious amounts of water or a baking soda and water solution before you put a clean mask on. For more information on how to deal with tear gas, check out our complete guide.

“I’d also recommend wearing goggles,” says Rohini Haar, an emergency physician and a research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “That way you’ll be protecting all the mucous membranes of your face, like your eyes, mouth, and nose.”

Even glasses might help to some extent, though they’ll only protect you from particles coming straight at you. Everything coming from above or the side can easily make its way into your eyes.

Wearing gloves can be helpful too, though you can forgo them if you are thorough with washing or sanitizing your hands. “As long as you have a bottle of hand sanitizer with you and use it whenever you come into contact with a person or a surface, you should be fine,” says Crystal Watson, an assistant professor at John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, and an expert in contact tracing.

A crowd is a crowd is a crowd

Black Lives Matter protests
We know it’s fun to be in the middle of a protesting crowd, but to prevent infection, you’ll want to keep your distance. Derick McKinney / Unsplash

There’s no way around it—by definition, the very objective of a protest is to attract a crowd to raise awareness of a particular issue. But standing in the middle of a large group of people is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to protect others and avoid getting infected during a pandemic.

You don’t actually have to be in the middle of a dense gathering to participate in a protest, though. Even in this kind of event, we should strive to keep that 6-foot distance from others as much as possible. Staying in the outskirts of a protest will make distancing easier, and will also help you move to safety more quickly if violence ensues.

Nevertheless, it’s important to know that even though you may intend to keep your distance, your ability to do so will be affected by a number of factors. These include the particular topography and layout of the protest location, and the position of police forces and other law enforcement officials.

If you’re arrested and moved into a closed and people-dense environment, such as a bus or a jail cell, or if you’re forced to move to an area where social distancing is not possible, keep in mind that your safety should be your first concern. If you can, move to a more open space, and if you can’t, try your best to keep your distance and your mask on.

Law enforcement could ask you to remove your mask, even if anti-mask laws have been suspended in several states due to the pandemic. If you ever face such a situation, weigh your risk and remember safety should be your priority—you may be able to avoid excessive violence by cooperating.

Things get a little more complicated if you have a higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19—that is, if you have any sort of immunodeficiency or underlying conditions.

“In that case, it might be good to protest from a further distance,” says Watson. She recommends that at-risk demonstrators hold their signs from the inside of their cars or bang pots and pans from the windows of their houses or apartments.

True—this is far from ideal and certainly not what comes to mind when you think of a protest. But we should not forget that by taking care of ourselves, we’re also caring for our community by not putting even more pressure on our healthcare system.

When to opt for a stay-at-home protest

Your right to protest is sacred—it’s protected both by the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one should tell you when you can or cannot protest, but there are some circumstances in which you should ask yourself if going out during a pandemic is the best decision for you and your community.

If you have been at high risk of infection lately, suspect you might be infected, or have any symptoms, it’s a good idea to stay home. Healthcare professionals have already voiced their concerns about how the nationwide demonstrations will affect the spread of COVID-19. Some of them—including Watson and Haar—agree that a second surge of infections is highly likely.

“It’s a difficult situation, because I understand the sentiment and the need to protest,” says Watson. “But I do expect there will be some increase in transmissions, though we don’t really know how big it could be.”

We need to be as careful as possible during this time, because all medical professionals can do is monitor the situation closely and act quickly when new cases are reported. This is why contact tracing is so important. “If someone is infected, we can trace the people they were with and ask them to stay at home and quarantine,” Watson says. “Then we can stun any surge that occurs.”

Contact tracing: how to help and stay safe

People protesting from a car
Sticking to your group of friends and staying away from the big crowd will make contact tracing a lot easier. Hayley Catherine / Unsplash

Contact tracing has been used in public health for years to help stop the spread of contagious diseases. The process identifies people who might have been exposed, alerts them of their situation, and asks them to take the necessary measures to prevent further transmission. This tool has been used to control the spread of Ebola, sexually transmitted diseases, SARS, and other contagions. Multiple states are now gearing up to use it against COVID-19.

Since it’s highly unlikely you’ll know everybody at a protest, Watson recommends that you stay within your own group and try not to make contact with other people. If there’s an infection, that will make it much easier to trace.

But when protesters have been subjected to excessive force by the police and other authorities across the country, it’s normal to be wary if someone asks you for information about yourself or the people you were with at a protest. There are ways to tell the difference between public health workers and people with other agendas, though.

Most importantly, contact tracers will not address you in a public setting. “If someone is approaching you at a protest and saying that they are contact tracing, that is not real—you should not engage with them,” Watson says.

Contact-tracing professionals will only approach you through a phone call or a text message, and they should properly identify themselves as officials from your local health department before they ask anything, Watson explains. You also have the right to question their identity and ask for credentials, and they should never ask for sensitive information such as financial records or your social security number.

Always remember that protesting is your inalienable right, and you should exercise it whenever you feel like it. On the other hand, don’t feel pressured to go out if you don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so. There are a lot of ways to help the causes you care about—you can sign petitions or donate money to civil organizations. Some of the things you can do, like streaming a playlist on YouTube, don’t even require you to leave your seat—let alone your home.

Sandra Gutierrez G.

Sandra Gutierrez G.is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.