Steve Way had been quarantining at his home in Kensington since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Philadelphia. He avoided people as much as possible and even had his groceries delivered.
But on Wednesday, he decided to join a friend by City Hall and be part of the demonstrations against racial injustice.
“Up until this point I’ve been very careful and very mindful about staying in but it was time to go out,” Way said.
Like many of the demonstrators he was wearing a mask and scarf in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. But most demonstrations since Saturday have consisted of people elbow to elbow chanting and moving in unison. Some with masks, others not.
The congregation of thousands of people has some epidemiologists worried that COVID-19 numbers could spike again in a couple of weeks.
“Things like yelling, speaking loudly, chanting can increase the number of droplets that are exposed,” said Abby Rudolph, an epidemiologist at Temple University. “Police tactics like teargas and pepper spray increase the risk of coughing and expelling mucus and droplets in the air.”
But some of the protesters say that the message they are sending is worth the risk of getting COVID-19.
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“We still mask up and things of that nature but there’s more important factors here and that’s humanity,” Jayce Mills, who had a gold mask hung around his neck, told NBC10.
Even more at risk for contracting the virus are the protesters who are detained by police and issued a citation. Those protesters are usually rounded up and taken to a police precinct on a packed bus.
“In regards to COVID-19, there’s nothing we can do because the situation is so chaotic,” said Chief Deputy Sheriff Vernon Muse, adding that there isn’t any room for social distancing on the buses.
Muse said for the most part protesters are wearing masks on the buses. But protesters NBC10 previously interviewed said that detained people usually take off their masks in the bus to be able to breathe. Some have been pepper sprayed or tear-gassed just before their arrest.
“I’m very concerned, I’m very concerned but under these circumstances there’s nothing we can do,” Muse said.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he is hopeful that if the majority of protestors are wearing masks, that might still make a difference in Philadelphia being able to open up sooner rather than later.
“Even if that didn’t occur 100% of the time, if we reduced the number of cases we may be able to contain this and it may not have an overall impact on the trajectory for the city,” Farley said.
COVID-19 spread or not, protesters are determined to have their voices heard.
“I’m a black man, what if that is me on the ground,” Mills said in reference to George Floyd. As for COVID-19: “That’s not my concern right now.”