demonstrators wear masks to try to stay safe while protesting police violence
A protest for Black Lives Matter in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Despite the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in cities around the U.S. have been turning out night after night to protest police violence and racism in the wake of the alleged murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“I was pretty hesitant to go out and protest,” says Allison Lane, 34, a Washington, D.C-based bartender and podcaster who had been quarantining at home since mid-March before joining the protests on Sunday night. “We spent all this time trying not to get COVID—now we probably have it.” 

“I’m not trying to be defeatist. We’re trying to be as responsible as possible,” adds Lane, who is planning to get tested for COVID-19. But “you need to stand up for yourself and do what’s right.”

There’s no risk-free way to protest with a contagious respiratory virus circulating, and there are other health risks too. Videos have shown police officers using tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence against nonviolent demonstrators. 

More on Staying Safe

But while protesting carries risks, these protests are “vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black People in the United States,” a group of infectious disease and public health experts wrote in an open letter signed by more than 1,000 people this week. The letter includes suggestions for ways that protestors, governmental officials, and law enforcement officers can reduce overall harm and the chance of coronavirus spread.

“We wanted to meet people where they were in this time of national tragedy,” says Peter Chin-Hong, M.D., a professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who helped organize the letter.

Here’s what to know about your risk of coronavirus exposure during a protest, as well as expert tips on how to prepare for possible violence and what to do if you’re hurt. 

Will Protests Spread COVID-19?

Anytime people are together in a crowd, there’s a chance that disease could circulate among them.

“Gathering in large groups could increase the risk of coronavirus transmission, but that risk needs to be considered in the context of the very real health impacts of systemic racism and police brutality, which require action,” says Julia Marcus, Ph.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School.

As long as protestors are able to stay outside, wear masks, and maintain social distancing, that should help minimize the risk of transmission, according to Marcus. But in some cases, distancing may be difficult. And certain actions by police can increase the risk of spreading the virus, she says. These include corralling protestors into smaller areas where they can’t social distance, pulling off protestors’ masks to pepper spray them, using respiratory irritants like tear gas, and detaining people in crowded buses and jails. (At least 10,000 people have been arrested so far, according to a tally by the Associated Press.)

“Those who are choosing to join the demonstrations are certainly likely to experience tear gas and pepper spray,” says Michele Heisler, M.D., the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. People who encounter these tactics should try to exit the area as quickly as possible, says Tamara D. Herold, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the director of the Crowd Management Research Council.

The use of these irritants could actually raise the risk of COVID-19, according to Chin-Hong, which is one of the reasons the public health experts’ open letter opposes any use of tear gas, smoke, or respiratory irritants.

Getting hit with tear gas makes people likely to cough, yell, and scream, he says, which can increase the chance they spread the respiratory droplets that carry the coronavirus. Tear gas or pepper spray might also make people more likely to touch their face, rubbing a burning nose or mouth, and protesters may tear their mask off if it’s coated in a chemical irritant. (Lane says that Monday night in Washington she and other protesters “had our masks on until we were tear gassed.”)

Chin-Hong says that while we still need more data, it’s also possible that the damage these irritants cause to the nose, mouth, and respiratory system could decrease your natural defenses and increase your susceptibility to the coronavirus. Damage from these chemicals can also cause breathing problems, like asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could in turn lead to a more severe case of COVID-19.

While it's impossible to eliminate these risks entirely, there are things you can do stay safer during a protest. “We're trying to take as many precautions as possible and still be visible and vigilant protesting,” says Lane.

Safety Tips for Protesters

Stay home if you’re sick. If you’re coughing, feverish, or have recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19, do not join the protests. Organizers as well as public health experts have shared that advice repeatedly, emphasizing that going out when you're sick puts others at risk. Marcus and other experts have also suggested that people consider quarantining for 14 days after a protest if possible.

Keep a distance. Even when you’re in a crowd, try to keep yourself physically distanced from other groups of protestors as much as you can, says Marcus. Going out to protest with a group of people that you stick close to—perhaps the same people that are in your household bubble—can help too, says Chin-Hong. If you stay with one group, you’ll at least be able to limit interactions with people outside that group. And if one person tests positive for the coronavirus later, everyone in that group can be informed about potential exposure.

Wear a mask. Wearing a mask will help protect those around you from COVID-19, which is especially important since you can have the virus but no symptoms. If worn snugly around the face, Heisler says, a mask may also help protect you from breathing in tear gas. You may need to take your mask off quickly once you get away, to avoid breathing in what it’s absorbed. So if you can, bring spare masks in case you or someone else in your group needs to replace one after being exposed, says Chin-Hong. Police should wear masks too.

Minimize shouts and chants. Shouting, singing, and chanting can spread viral particles much farther than six feet. The New York City Department of Health has recommended using signs and noisemakers instead.

Bring a backpack. According to Heisler, you'll want a small bag to carry essential items like spare masks, along with plenty of water and hand sanitizer. “We were hand sanitizing constantly,” says Lane. And be sure you're hydrating, especially if you're protesting in the heat. 

Wear goggles. There are several reasons to make sure your eyes are well-protected. If a rubber bullet hits you in the eye, “there is a high likelihood that you will never be able to see anything out of the eye again, even light,” says Julie Schallhorn, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the UCSF School of Medicine.

“The best protection against rubber bullets is wearing construction-grade plastic polycarbonate shatter-proof goggles,” she says. While not not much else will adequately protect your eyes against a high-speed projectile, Schallhorn says swim goggles or what are called onion goggles (made for cutting onions) can help protect your eyes against tear gas and pepper spray as long as they form a tight seal against your face.

COVID-19 can be spread through mucus membranes like the eye, so goggles can also reduce your risk of catching the virus, especially when combined with a mask.

Do not wear contacts. Both pepper spray and tear gas activate the pain-sensing nerves in your eyes (and other mucus membranes, like your mouth).

“Just being exposed to it is not going to cause long term damage” to the eyes, says Schallhorn. But “it hurts like the dickens. It really, really hurts.”

If you’re wearing contact lenses, these noxious substances can get absorbed into the lens and prolong the pain you’re experiencing. “You should definitely not wear [contacts] to protests,” she says.

Avoid makeup or lotion. Whether they are water based or oil based, makeups and lotions can trap tear gas powder against your skin and make it more painful, according Heisler. You are better off using scarves and other clothing to protect your skin.

Be careful about flushing out your eyes. Advice on the internet includes a range of ideas about what to use to flush out your eyes in the event that you’re exposed to pepper spray or tear gas, including suggestions like baking soda and baby shampoo. But in general, putting foreign substances in your eye can hurt more than help. Washing your eyes out with baby shampoo, for example, “can break down the natural coat on the surface of the eye and can leave your eye more irritated,” says Schallhorn.

What should you do instead? When you feel your eyes tearing, that means they are already working to rinse out the painful substance, says Schallhorn. Artificial tears, or a gentle rinse with saline solution (that’s made for the eyes) or—in a pinch—bottled water may also help. Milk won’t do much for tear gas, but may help if you’ve been pepper-sprayed, says Schallhorn, since it can help unbind capsaicin (the active ingredient in pepper spray) from pain receptors.

If a tear gas canister explodes at close range or if you think chemical or foreign matter is trapped in your eyes, get to an ER as soon as you can, says Schallhorn.

Move away quickly from rubber bullets. If you are in a situation where you see tension building and the police are holding weapons that appear to fire rubber bullets, “get really far away,” says Heisler. These weapons are extremely erratic and indiscriminate, she says, and can be deadly. “There have been cases of bystanders not involved in the demonstrations being hit in the face with rubber bullets,” she says.

As the medical director for Physicians for Human Rights, Heisler says she has led investigations into violence against demonstrators in other countries, into cases where people have been hit in the face with tear gas canisters or lost an eye after being hit with a rubber bullet.

“It’s horrifying to see examples of those in the U.S.,” she says. “We have the right to peaceful freedom of assembly … we want to urge our legislators and our police departments that there are better ways than these potentially lethal weapons.”