Protests against systemic racism held in 300-plus U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd did not cause a significant increase in coronavirus infections, according to a team of economists who have published their findings in a 60-page paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research; these somewhat surprising results are supported by Covid-19 testing data in many populous cities where demonstrations were held.
In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, health officials expressed great concern that protesters, potentially yelling and shouting in very close proximity, would quickly spread the virus, which might lead to devastating outbreaks.
However, researchers found “no evidence that urban protests reignited Covid-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset.”
In fact, they determined that, based on cellphone data, “cities which had protests saw an increase in social distancing behavior for the overall population relative to cities that did not,” leading to “modest evidence of a small longer-run case growth decline.”
The study’s lead author, Dhaval Dave of Bentley University, said, “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.”.
The study used newly collected data from 315 of the largest U.S. cities and documents that protests took place in 281 of those cities.
The authors prereleased the paper last week, and it has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The study’s conclusions are supported by Covid-19 testing data in many of the cities that were home to prevalent protesting. 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 came back positive—below the statewide average of about 3.6%. According to the Washington Post, protest attendees in Minneapolis returned positivity rates of less than 1% and that “officials believe the low infection rates reflect that the protests were outside, that most people wore masks and that people spent most of their time in motion, circulating through the crowd.” NPR reported last week that parties—not protests—are believed to have caused coronavirus spikes in Washington. “We’re finding that the social events and gatherings, these parties where people aren’t wearing masks, are our primary source of infection,” said Erika Lautenbach, a local county Health Department director.
Earlier this week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy partly blamed increased coronavirus cases on protesters. “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,” said McCarthy, a Republican who represents California. In the NBER paper’s abstract, the authors write, “We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.”
“When considering the results’ implications for the entire population: public speech and public health did not trade off against each other in this case,” the authors wrote in the NBER paper.