Now that double-masking has become common, and the CDC has confirmed it offers more protection against the coronavirus, should you be doubling up your masks at a protest?
Chin-Hong said it's more about making sure your surgical face covering is well-fitted. If you're not able to fit it to your face snugly, that's when to consider wearing two masks.
And if two masks just aren't possible, or if you feel uncomfortable doing that, wearing one mask "in the harm reduction model" is better than not wearing any mask at all, Chin-Hong said.
The Risk From the COVID-19 Variants
It's important to remember along with different numbers of overall COVID-19 cases, that there are different COVID-19 variants in different parts of the country, Chin-Hong said. Therefore the risk from variants in a crowded environment like a protest is variable from place to place.
Attending a demonstration in places with high case counts like Michigan or Minnesota, Chin-Hong said, is "like playing Russian roulette with more loaded bullets — but the variants just up the game."
The most prevalent coronavirus variant in the Bay Area right now is the British (U.K.) B.1.1.7 variant, which has been found to be more contagious. However, the Bay Area's COVID-19 cases are now much lower than previous months, which makes the risks posed to protestors by this variant smaller.
That said, you also have to consider if people might be coming into the Bay Area from places with higher COVID-19 numbers to protest. All of this is why "it's a dynamic picture," Chin-Hong said, "and people should be careful."
Can a Protest Ever Be COVID-19 Safe?
Experts said that whether protesting is safe depends on the protest.
"If they are and are doing their best to keep a distance from others, it is safe enough that people should make their own choices," UCSF Chair Wachter told KQED in 2020. "I completely understand the motivation for protesting, and people should just do it as safely as they can."
"Just like last year, these protests are important," Chin-Hong said. "They're a response to a public health threat if you think about the impact of structural racism and stress on health care."
Protests outside are safer, UC Berkeley School of Public Health epidemiology expert Art Reingold told KQED last year. However, he said he was concerned about the ability of people to maintain social distance.
"The good news is that these marches tend to occur outside and we think the risk of transmission outside is less," Reingold said, adding that protesters should frequently use hand sanitizer. "The bad news is that you may be in close proximity to large numbers of people, it's probably not very realistic to stay 6 feet away."
On a positive note, the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country in May 2020 in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police did not turn into the “superspreader” events that 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
It's unclear how tear gas and COVID-19 mix, Art Reingold said. For instance, coughing and crying from tear gas could spread the virus more. But we don't know whether tear gas could kill the virus or impact how long the virus stays on other materials.
Chin-Hong agrees 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."
Some protesters also bring wet bandanas or masks to help protect themselves from tear gas. However, we do not know whether a wet mask is as effective against the virus, Reingold said.
"In general, we think that when masks become wet that they’re not as good as preventing the spread of virus and we ask people to discard masks when they become wet," he said. "I suppose, in theory, a wet mask might be less effective against the virus, but not necessarily."
Chin-Hong said it's easy to focus on what protesters can do to mitigate the COVID-19 risks for themselves and those around them — but that law enforcement have a part to play on this front, too. He wants to see police not only forgoing the use of tear gas, but questioning people outdoors rather than indoors or in a police car. He'd also to like to see police not asking or forcing people to remove their masks while being questioned, and that offering mask alternatives like face shields — that allow police to still see a person's face — "would be more humane."
Should You Get Tested After a Protest?
In short: Yes, it's a good idea, said Dr. Chin-Hong. Even if you're vaccinated.
That's because "what typically what we know about COVID, vaccinated or unvaccinated, is that the vast majority of transmissions occur in asymptomatic individuals," he said. So even if you have no symptoms, if you've been in a crowded environment like a protest and you can get tested quickly and simply at a testing site near you, why not do it for your own peace of mind?
"I think it would be a great idea," said Chin-Hong. "You [now] have your pick of places to go and get tested, for free even."