Protests during pandemic: State doctor weighs in on risk

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state’s public health order still includes a ban on mass gatherings, but that hasn’t stopped protests where thousands of people are crowding streets across the state and the country. So could the virus be spreading even more?

Since COVID-19 spreads through person-to-person contact, health officials say the public has to weigh that risk along with their right to protest. Tuesday marked a third straight night of protests in Albuquerque where hundreds took to the streets to speak out against the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by Minnesota police.

“We mean nothing but peace,” said Frankie Grady, an Albuquerque protester. “All we want is reform. That’s all we want is a seat at the table, that’s it.”

The City of Albuquerque commended the peaceful protesters on Wednesday. Mayor Tim Keller said, “As residents speak out against racial injustice, we urge everyone to carry this peaceful spirit forward. It is powerful and we are listening.” The images where hundreds and sometimes thousands are gathered shoulder-to-shoulder shouting, can’t be ignored by public health officials in the midst of a pandemic.

“I get nervous anytime I see people standing too close together,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Doctor David Scrase. “I do constantly think about masking and social distancing.” Dr. Scrase has spent weeks urging people to stay home per the public health order and stay at least six feet away from others when out in public. He also said he understands why people want to protest, and the importance of doing so.

“That’s not something I think we can do without in a democracy for 18 months, just sort of ask people no longer to have any opinions about anything or no longer demonstrate,” explained Dr. Scrase. “I would love to see every single person wearing a mask because I know that helps,” he added.

Dr. Scrase urged those who choose to gather and protest to be safe, wear masks, keep their distance from one another, and stay home if they feel sick. He shared his own message with those who choose to protest.

“Thanks for standing up for what you believe in and if you can, just be absolutely certain that every time you do it you wear a mask, and you stay six feet away from people and you limit closer contact – that would be even better,” said Dr. Scrase.

Mayor Keller urged everyone who’s been participating in these protests to get tested for COVID-19. Dr. Scrase said it’s unclear whether the protests will contribute to another surge in cases, but said they’ll likely find out in a few weeks.

New Mexico Coronavirus Resource Guide

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