Plans to move Philly to ‘yellow’ forge ahead, despite risk of virus spread through gatherings

The crowd at the Art Museum continues to grow, protesting the police violence that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The crowd at the Art Museum continues to grow, protesting the police violence that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

As hundreds gather each day across Philadelphia to protest the death of George Floyd, allegedly murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Philly and its surrounding counties are poised to move from the state-designated “red” phase of coronavirus shutdown to the less restrictive “yellow” phase. Despite the rules against large gatherings in both phases, city and state officials have signaled that, as of now, Philadelphia will stay the course.

“The plan is for red counties, including Philadelphia, to move to yellow on Friday,” Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said Monday.

It will likely take a week or two to see how the ongoing protests over Floyd’s death will affect the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the protests aren’t the first instances of large crowds gathering in violation of Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order. Across the state over Memorial Day weekend, public health officials worried that celebrations among stir-crazy Pennsylvanians would cause an uptick in coronavirus cases and slow the progress the commonwealth has made in mitigating the spread of the virus.

Over the next few days, the city might start to see such an increase, said Philadelphia Health Department spokesman James Garrow. Though Mondays have been slow days for test results throughout the pandemic because of weekend lag times at labs, he said the day’s 252 positive tests showed no sign of an uptick yet.

City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has consistently said that moving into the “Safer at Home” phase scheduled for Friday will depend on a variety of data points, including hospital space, testing capacity, and new positive case numbers.

The testing metrics could be affected by the shrinking number of testing sites due to the protests: On Monday and Tuesday, all city testing sites and community health centers were set to be closed as a part of the shutdown of all city services. Several pharmacies, such as CVS and Rite Aid, also closed locations, further reducing the number of test sites in Philly. If the number of tests drops substantially, that could affect the plan, according to Garrow, as could a spike in cases that would likely be a result of Memorial Day activities.

“Based on what we’re seeing, the mayor and Health Department will make that decision in the next few days, and in coordination with Governor Wolf,” he said.

As of now, the state will stick with the plan for Philadelphia’s transition to “yellow” on Friday, along with all the other remaining “red” counties in the state.

Studies have shown that the risk of contracting the coronavirus is much higher indoors than outdoors, which makes the protests less of a risk. Research has also demonstrated that the degree of illness can be the result of exposure time, meaning that constant movement could decrease the chances of someone becoming substantially ill.

But activities that involve vocal projection like shouting and singing have a higher risk of expelling the virus, studies show. Researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified one choir practice in Washington state as a super-spreading event after a single symptomatic singer infected 53 other choir members. Protests in Philadelphia and elsewhere have involved chanting and shouting in close proximity.

Still, experts and public officials have made it clear that the gatherings were a risk that many protesters felt they had no choice but to take.

“People were forced to the streets because the racism was just too much to witness and bear witness [to] and remain silent,” said Sharrelle Barber, professor and social epidemiologist at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.

Barber said it was one thing for people of color to sit by and watch as African Americans and Latinos were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but the death of Floyd served as a tipping point. She said protesters should not be blamed for taking to the streets and speaking out against injustice, and instead federal and local governments should be held accountable to contain an outbreak if one were to occur.

“The real risk is the fact that we as a nation have had an uncoordinated, irresponsible response to the pandemic as a whole,” said Barber. “We talk about the protests, but we’re unprepared in general to reopen.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

State and local officials seemed to largely agree that protesters are entitled to gather, signaling a shift in the calculus for enforcing social distancing.

“The Wolf administration supports the ability to peacefully protest,” Wardle wrote in an email, in a tone notably different from previous urgings to stay home at all costs. “At this time, in the midst of COVID-19, it is essential that we as Pennsylvanians look out for one another, and take steps to protect one another. Remember, my mask protects you, and your mask protects me. Remember to socially distance when possible.”

Garrow said he has been impressed by the photos and videos he’s seen of protesters acting responsibly and, in large part, wearing masks.

Law enforcement officials, conversely, have been photographed in multiple instances without masks on in close proximity to one another and in physical contact with protesters. Philadelphia Police Department public information officer Sekou Kinbrew said that the expectation for PPD officers is still to be wearing masks at all times, unless they inadvertently fell or were pulled off, or became soiled. He would not comment on any particular images or videos.

Garrow acknowledged that if a protest participant were to become infected with the virus,  contact tracing would be much more difficult than if they were staying at home and limiting the number of people they spend time with. But the rising tensions seem to have lowered the bar for stay-at-home restrictions.

“The fewer contacts folks have in the pandemic, the better for everyone,” said Garrow. “But understand that not everyone’s following those rules, and in some cases, like this weekend, they may have a very good reason for that.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal