• The coronavirus’ US impact is one thing, but protestors are tuning it out in favor of what they see as a higher mission with an urgency that matters more than the risks associated with the COVID-19 virus.
  • What’s more, leading health experts agree with them — that fears about the virus shouldn’t dissuade them from protesting and making their voices heard.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about this “difficult situation” and trade-off in a new interview Friday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert who has been the face of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, gave an interview Friday to a Washington DC-based radio station in which he addressed a subject that health experts have for days been grappling with and trying to figure out how to talk about.

That subject is the protests filling American streets in response to the killing of an unarmed Minneapolis man, George Floyd, by police there. Health experts, along with their official guidance, have been warning us for weeks that crowds are to be avoided — indeed, that crowds are a breeding ground for the deadly COVID-19 virus that has led to more than 109,000 reported deaths in the US so far. At the same time, officials like Fauci are also grappling with a seemingly contradictory reality, that the protests against the excessive use of force by police and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, in general, are profoundly necessary at this moment in time.

Here’s how a news outlet here in my hometown of Memphis put it, after interviewing a local health professional: The local pandemic, this expert insisted, “is ‘under reasonable control’ and a week of protests gathering hundreds of Memphians together was important enough to risk what might lead to a rise in confirmed cases.”

That’s not necessarily so, however, according to Fauci.

“Every time I hear about or see the congregation of large crowds at a time and geographic area where there is active infection transmission, it is a perfect set-up for the spread of the virus in the sense of creating these blips that might turn into some surges,” Fauci said, adding that concerns about the virus and the constitutional right to protest represent a tricky balance to get right. “So I get very concerned.”

Fauci goes on to add: “There certainly is a risk, I would say that with confidence, when you see the congregation of crowds, particularly in a situation where you have a lot of confusion and a little bit of chaos, people running back and forth, taking their masks off, being close in proximity. That does pose a risk.”

His remarks come at a time when some of his professional colleagues have been taking a different tack — including people like Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts like him talk about all this within the context of a risk trade-off, suggesting that there are ways to protest and still minimize your risk of exposure to COVID-19:

Similarly, here’s the former public health epidemiologist for New York City:

Dr. Fauci, who serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has previously acknowledged the reality that the coronavirus pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on black communities and families. That forms the backdrop for his latest comments about the “difficult situation” that protestors find themselves in. In short, if you’re going to attend a protest, he stresses that a face mask should be worn at all times, at a minimum.

“We have the right to peaceably demonstrate,” he said, “and the demonstrators are exercising that right … it’s important to exercise your constitutional rights to be able to demonstrate, but it’s a delicate balance, because the reasons for demonstrating are valid. And yet, the demonstration itself puts one at an additional risk.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.