For many protesters in Seattle over the weekend, the outrage over racial injustices outweighed the risk of contracting COVID-19.
That calculus sent people streaming into the streets of downtown Seattle, where they shouted face to face with authorities and pushed into tight crowds, although many wore masks.
Now experts and public health officials are cautioning the large gatherings — the first of this scale since the pandemic was declared — could set back the region’s recovery from the novel coronavirus epidemic.
“We will need to watch COVID-19 activity closely in King County over the next several weeks,” David Postman, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, said in an email. The protests, though, would not affect the county’s current application to reopen some parts of the economy, he said.
With the virus still coursing through the community, King County approached the weekend’s protests on precarious footing. The infection rate remained too high in recent weeks for King County to advance to the second phase of Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan to reopen society, unlike most counties in the state.
“We’re not done with the virus, at all,” said Brad Pollock, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine in California. “It was pretty frightening to see people packed together.”
Many demonstrators were wearing face coverings at Saturday’s protests in downtown Seattle, but crowds filled cityscapes that made social distancing difficult.
The Seattle parks and neighborhoods departments handed out hundreds of single-use use masks to people taking part in Saturday’s demonstrations. Other groups passed out water, masks and sanitizing wipes.
While face coverings reduce the risk of transmission, Pollock said, they don’t absolve the need for physical distancing of 6 feet or more.
“Some people let their guard down, being very emotionally involved,” Pollock said. “Folks that would normally be rational would get riled up, and you’d hate for people to be exposing themselves.”
A total of 8,054 King County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, as of Saturday afternoon, and 556 people have died due to the disease.
The virus, as in other parts of the country, has disproportionately impacted people of color in King County. Black residents have been infected at nearly three times the rate of white residents, according to the county’s count of confirmed cases, adjusted for population.
Whether the demonstrations actually lead to COVID-19 cases will be difficult to determine, because the protests coincided with the reopening of businesses, experts say. The county is going to soon apply to the state to reopen a handful of businesses such as hair salons and some outdoor restaurant dining, County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday in a news conference.
A spokeswoman from Public Health — Seattle & King County confirmed Sunday the county was still submitting its latest reopening application “and will be closely watching disease trends in the coming weeks to determine whether we can continue to move forward safely with reopening.”
On Friday, Inslee lowered one key threshold needed to advance to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, and King County appears to be within the new range, according to county statistics. As of May 30, there was an average of 24 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks. The new threshold is fewer than 25 cases, adjusted from 10.
Advancing to the second phase, however, is contingent on other benchmarks that must still be reached.
Protest participants don’t necessarily need to get tested, state health officials said in an email, but they should “closely monitor their health” and contact a health care provider if they develop COVID-19 symptoms. If people don’t have a provider, they should contact their county health department to ask about testing.
State health officials also said protesters who decide to congregate should abide by the now-familiar public health directives, including wearing a mask, socially distancing from other people, washing hands and staying home if they are sick.