Updated 11:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 30
On Friday, authorities in Memphis, Tenn., released footage from the police killing of Tyre Nichols — sparking protests, rallies and vigils around the country. In Oakland, a city with a long history of deadly confrontations involving law enforcement, hundreds marched on Sunday at a rally held by the Anti Police-Terror Project.
The Bay Area in particular has a robust history of protest. From racial injustice and police killings of Black people to climate action and abortion access, residents have taken to the streets in protest against or in support of many crucial issues countless times in the last two years alone.
So, how can you stay safe at a rally for a cause you care about, not just from COVID but from the other potential risks that come from being at a protest?
Keep reading for our safety tips and reminders about attending a rally in the Bay Area.
How to reduce your risk of getting (or spreading) COVID at a protest
The good news: Your risks of getting COVID outdoors are far lower than your risks indoors — about 20 times less, says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF.
Also, being vaccinated and boosted will greatly reduce your risks of getting very sick, being hospitalized or dying from COVID. If you're not yet boosted, find the latest bivalent "omicron booster" shot near you. If you're bringing children to a protest with you, remember that kids and babies age 6 months and over can get their primary COVID vaccine series, and bivalent boosters have been authorized for children in this age range, too.
But you should still think about your risks of getting (or spreading) COVID at a big event full of people, even when you're outdoors. As with so many decisions during the pandemic, a lot comes down to your personal risks and circumstances — not just to protect yourself, but others, too. "I think it requires people to be thoughtful about who they are, who they live with, and what happens when they leave the protest and go back home," says Chin-Hong.
Bring your mask along
It's not only the number of people you'll encounter at a protest — it's what they might be doing. Even outside, screaming, chanting, coughing and singing all expel more of the particles that can spread COVID than regular activity does, and you may decide to keep your mask on during a protest if it's a super-crowded space.
You might also find that the protest organizers themselves request you wear a mask and maintain social distancing at the event, especially if the event is being attended by groups or communities at higher risk for severe illness from COVID.
There's also the possibility that you might not stay outside. "Whenever you have a protest, nobody just stays necessarily outdoors," says Chin-Hong, giving pre-protest gatherings and meetings or post-protest dinners as examples.
"These may be done in people's homes. I think it's the stuff that goes around the actual outdoor protest that I'm more worried about," says Chin-Hong. He recommends that people "think about carrying a mask with them, like they carry an umbrella. So that they just bring out the 'umbrella' when it's potentially 'raining with COVID.'"
As for which mask to wear at any indoor protest-adjacent gatherings, wear "at least a surgical mask, if not a KN95, a KF94 or an N95," says Chin-Hong. "The cloth masks don't cut it in 2022."
Use the testing tools at your disposal
If you know a protest has the potential for indoor situations, or you're planning to gather before or after with people indoors, think about using a rapid antigen test beforehand.
Some vaccinated people report testing negative repeatedly on rapid antigen tests with COVID symptoms, but then testing positive on a PCR test — but Chin-Hong says this isn't a reason to discount the use of rapid tests. Those antigen at-home tests are "good for transmissibility predictions," he says — that is, detecting whether you at least have the amount of virus in your body that would make you infectious to others. Because PCR tests are a lot more sensitive, they pick up far lower levels of virus in your system.
Chin-Hong says there's also evidence to suggest that some vaccinated people actually experience COVID symptoms much sooner than they actually test positive: "Your body gets the alarm going off sooner than if you weren't vaccinated, because it's trying to capture these viruses, and it's eventually going to be successful."
Chin-Hong counsels that rapid tests are "not perfect, of course, because you can have a low amount of virus but spend a long time with somebody in an enclosed space and potentially still get infected."
"Because we have so much virus floating around, and particularly if you live with elderly parents or grandparents, you probably might want to test after the event," says Chin-Hong. And as for when you should test, "in the old days we'd say three to five days [after a protest], but I think three days might be a good target for omicron," he says.
Even if you have no symptoms, when you've been in a crowded environment such as a protest and you can get tested quickly and simply at a testing site near you, or via a rapid at-home test, why not do it for your own peace of mind? Read about how to find a COVID test near you in the Bay Area, or order four free at-home antigen tests from the federal government via USPS.
Can a protest ever be truly 'COVID safe'?
Experts say that whether protesting is safe depends on the protest.
"If they are ... doing their best to keep a distance from others, it is safe enough that people should make their own choices," UCSF Department of Medicine Chair Bob Wachter told KQED in 2020. "I completely understand the motivation for protesting, and people should just do it as safely as they can."
In 2021, Chin-Hong told KQED that protests against racist violence and the killing of Black people by police were themselves "a response to a public health threat, if you think about the impact of structural racism and stress on health care."
Now, when it comes to weighing the desire to protest a cause with the risks of getting or spreading COVID, "I think the benefits of protesting are even more in favor of protesting now," Chin-Hong told KQED in 2022. That "risk/benefit calculus," as he puts it, is even more in favor of attending a rally — "because we have so many tools to keep people safer," from vaccines and boosters to improved COVID treatment if someone is hospitalized.
It's important to note that the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country in May 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of now-incarcerated Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin did not turn into the “superspreader” events some had feared. Many of the cities where major demonstrations took place — including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia — did not see any new surge in cases in the days and weeks following those protests.
COVID-19 and tear gas
Members of law enforcement have used tear gas and pepper spray against protesters, including in the George Floyd protests of 2020. Medical researchers have heavily criticized this use of these weapons during the pandemic, noting how deploying them could raise the risks of COVID spreading in a crowd because of the coughing and crying they induce.
In 2021, Chin-Hong also noted that tear gas could create an environment in which COVID-19 could spread further. "You're rubbing your eyes, you're taking your mask off and there are a lot of people doing the same thing around you — so it's like you're going to a large group event without any protection on," he said.
Historically, some protesters have brought along wet bandanas or masks to help protect themselves from tear gas. But a wet mask will be far less effective against COVID, notes Chin-Hong, because of how the seal between mask and face can be broken by the moisture.
Chin-Hong told KQED that it's often easy to focus on what you as a protester can do to mitigate the COVID risks for yourself and those around you — but that law enforcement have a part to play on this front, too. He wanted to see police not only forgoing the use of tear gas, but questioning people outdoors rather than indoors or in a police car. He also advocated for police not asking or forcing people to remove their masks while being questioned, noting that offering mask alternatives like face shields — that allow police to still see a person's face — "would be more humane."