Crowding together in a large group, shouting messages, being pushed into close proximity by police or physical barriers, or having to wash tear gas from your eyes can all put protesters at risk of contracting COVID-19.
In Minnesota, the state where George Floyd died and protests first started, the State Department of Health recommended that any person who attends a protest, vigil, or community clean-up get tested for COVID-19 if they can, no later than 5-7 days after the event. Here in Pennsylvania, according to TribLive, State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine gave similar recommendations, encouraging anyone who develops symptoms after a protest to seek testing.
“Given that we still are in the middle of a global pandemic, we would want everyone to be wearing masks, we would want people to stay six feet or more apart, to not have personal contact with each other, and to use hand sanitizer as much as possible,” Levine said at a press conference on June 2.
With the increased potential to contract COVID-19 during mass gatherings, there are steps that demonstrators can take to help avoid exposure, and local Pittsburgh organizations are hoping to help in that cause.
Articles published in national publications like The Conversation, Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine, with advice from physicians and researchers, recommended that protesters wear masks, eye protection, and gloves, and bring hand sanitizer. When possible, protesters should try to socially distance, and avoid shaking hands with or hugging strangers. Some recommend that people who are immunocompromised or who have other underlying health conditions consider staying home to reduce exposure to COVID-19. After returning home from a march, protesters should wash the clothes or items they brought along in order to avoid transmission.
Pittsburgh City Paper has covered nearly all of the Black Lives Matter protests over the past week, and has seen a vast majority of participants following this guidance and wearing masks. Individual volunteers and organizations have attempted to mitigate the danger by distributing masks at protests to those who don’t have their own.
Workshop PGH, a Pittsburgh DIY school located on Penn Avenue, is one such organization. The workspace has been making masks to donate and give away to the general public on the front window of their building since the end of March.
“I’m a sewist, we have sewing machines, and a lot of our customers sew, so we kind of dove in pretty quickly trying to make masks to donate,” said Kelly Malone, owner of Workshop PGH. “Every mask we sell, we always make one or two that we give out for free. We put out what we could make, but we also put out kits of all the materials so that people could make their own masks, and taped them to our window.”
Malone and a volunteer took a box of around 300 masks, as well as bottles of water and Gatorade, to distribute at the protest in East Liberty. She also taped some masks along the fence across from the Target and on posts.
“Once we knew this protest was going to be in our neighborhood and nearby, we wanted to help,” said Malone. “So we quickly got support on every level, of people making masks and giving them to us to distribute, dropping stuff off, and giving us materials.”
Since June 1, as the demonstrations have continued, several local storefronts across the city have brought out water bottles and sports drinks as protesters march by. On June 2, Uruk Hookah Lounge in the South Side provided bottled water to marchers.
Malone plans to continue putting up masks and water bottles when she learns of protests in the area.
“I think a lot of people want to help but don't feel comfortable protesting if they're high risk,” she said. “I’ve been concerned, and we have a voice and a lot of followers, and I think we have a lot of people who follow us and want to help but don’t know how.”