COVID-19: How Political Rallies Can Help Spread the Virus

The May 28 rally at the Colorado State Capitol in support of George Floyd — who died in Minneapolis earlier this week after telling police officers, "I can't breathe," in a chilling echo of the late Eric Garner's final words — turned violent, with several shots fired and protesters running through chemical fog from gas canisters.

This event and other protests slated for the weekend would raise safety issues under any circumstances — but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of concern. Many of the demonstrators in downtown Denver yesterday wore masks, but a considerable percentage chose not to do so, and the concept of social distancing quickly vanished when the scene turned chaotic, raising the prospect that the virus could be carried far beyond the Capitol's grounds.

A study that examined a very different sort of protest at the State Capitol — Operation Gridlock, an April 19 demonstration against Colorado's stay-at-home order — shows exactly how it could happen. Specifically, cell-phone data reveals that dissenters at that demonstration, an even greater number of whom eschewed social distancing and facial coverings, subsequently traveled to a wide range of locations across the state and beyond, potentially taking the virus with them.

The analysis was conducted by the Committee to Protect Medicare, headed by Rob Davidson, an emergency-room doctor based in western Michigan.

Operation Gridlock "started here in Michigan on April 15," Davidson says. "Our concern was that these people weren't obeying social distancing recommendations, not wearing masks and congregating in one central location. We wondered: Where are they going when they're done? Do they have the potential of picking up the virus at an event like this, which is probably one of the more high-risk types of gatherings to take place? And cell-phone data showed that over a 48-hour period, they ended up in very disparate locations all around the state."

click to enlarge This Committee to Protect Medicare map shows where participants in Operation Gridlock went after the protest. - COMMITTEETOPROTECT.ORG
This Committee to Protect Medicare map shows where participants in Operation Gridlock went after the protest.
The Michigan rally quickly prompted others, including the one in Denver, which drew a crowd from across the region. According to Davidson, cell-phone data from the spectacle showed that "individuals came from a lot of different places outside Colorado: Omaha, Nebraska, Topeka, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas."

And when they headed home, they could easily have taken COVID-19 with them as a not-so-friendly parting gift.

The multi-week incubation period associated with the novel coronavirus makes it difficult to know whether Operation Gridlock protesters prompted viral flare-ups in their homes, but Davidson feels that the risk of that happening is obvious. That's one reason that he's a vocal advocate for much wider testing and follow-up contact tracing.

"Without that, it's a free-for-all," he maintains. "If your policy is reactive to hospitalization, you're reacting to things that happened four to six weeks ago, and that means the economy opening in any meaningful way is going to continue to be delayed."

From an ideological standpoint, Operation Gridlock and the protests over George Floyd's death have nothing in common — but when it comes to COVID-19, the risk of further spread is all too similar.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts