You must stay home to save lives. You must socially distance and lock down.
Unless you’re protesting racism and police brutality.
This appears to be the message from some government and health officials, who for months enforced a rigorous and unprecedented economic shutdown in the name of stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic — resulting in millions losing their jobs and students being sent home from schools across the country.
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But as states just now begin to emerge from those lockdowns, some have argued in favor of an exception to those guidelines for those protesting the death of George Floyd — suggesting the gains from seeking police reforms outweigh the risks of a new surge in virus cases.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose state had some of the harshest lockdown measures in the country, was pictured shoulder-to-shoulder protesting with other officials and demonstrators. Her office told the Detroit News that Whitmer wore a mask and denied she violated her executive order.
But the outlet noted a page of frequently asked questions about the order on the governor’s website specifically says, “Persons may engage in expressive activities protected by the First Amendment within the State of Michigan but must adhere to social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including remaining at least six feet from people from outside the person’s household.”
The report also noted that a month ago, she was warning that anti-lockdown protesters who showed up at the Capitol risk forcing the stay-at-home order to continue for longer.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, meanwhile, suggested that protesters against police brutality were more important than business owners keen to know when they could regain their livelihoods.
“I don’t want to make light of this, and I’ll probably get lit up by everyone who owns a nail salon in the state,” Murphy said during a Monday briefing. “But it’s one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening, and it’s another to come out in peaceful protest, overwhelmingly, about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes.
“The decision to go out or not go out, as long as you do it responsibly, safely and peacefully that’s a decision, I would say, in this particular instance, I would leave to the individuals,” he said.
However, most of New Jersey’s edicts have not been left “to the individuals,” and businesses and other activities have been locked down by state mandate.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday visited a “Black Lives Matter” mural and posed with supporters and officials, while briefly removing her mask to pose for pictures.
Meanwhile, Politico gathered examples of a number of experts who have reversed course on the importance of keeping strict social distancing measures in place.
“We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, tweeted on Tuesday. “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
The outlet also noted that former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden, who strongly warned against efforts to rush reopening, is now supportive of mass protests. (The current CDC director has taken a more cautious tone.)
Meanwhile, the Atlantic reported on a letter signed by 100 people in the public-health community, first drafted by infectious-disease experts at the University of Washington, which reaches the conclusion that the protests are OK.
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“To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States,” the letter says.
Some experts have pointed out that the virus does not spread easily outdoors. However, this sudden openness to outdoor mass events may surprise those who were scolded for going to the beach in Florida or who live in New York City, where playgrounds are still closed.
The reversal has plenty of critics.
Leon Wolf, managing editor at The Blaze, a conservative outlet, fumed in a Twitter thread about how those urging devastating measures to stop the spread have now changed their tune.
He said he drew the conclusion “that they didn’t really believe what they were saying all along. Because an infectious disease does not care about the reason you are gathering or how important it is. It has no social conscience, or conscience of any kind.”
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“Many people–out of a respect for social distancing–missed a parent’s dying hours,” author J.D. Vance wrote. “If you think experiencing that–while watching mass gatherings praised by the same scolds who prevented you from seeing family–doesn’t erode trust in authorities, you’re actually an idiot.”
“They killed tens of thousands of seniors in nursing homes. They won’t let us go out of our own homes for months. They’ve destroyed the economy. And now if you don’t do what they’ve been telling us not to do all this time – to gather with other people – we’re irredeemable racists,” said columnist Bethany Mandel, who last month was called “Grandma Killer” in a trending hashtag when she called for the lockdowns to end.
Her thread continued: “This is the scandal of the century. We’ve all been played.”