- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2020

It’s not OK to violate stay-at-home and social distancing orders if you’re protesting the economic shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s fine to do so if you’re decrying “white supremacy,” according to some public health experts.

An open letter signed by 1,288 “public health officials, infectious disease professionals, and community stakeholders” came out in support of the mass protests spurred by the death of George Floyd in police custody, refusing to denounce them as “risky” and calling them “vital to the national public health.”

“Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” said the June 1 letter. “To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy.”

The letter, spurred by infectious-disease specialists at the University of Washington, was signed by doctors and medical professionals from top universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, as well as community activists.

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” the letter continued. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”

They applied a different standard to those such as the “heavily armed and predominantly white protesters” who descended last month on the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, to demonstrate against the stay-at-home orders.

“This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders,” the letter said. “Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”

In addition, “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”

The letter, with its apparent double-standard on a disease that does not discriminate between left- and right-wing protesters, drew a lengthy, outraged response on Twitter from Blaze managing editor Leon Wolf, who asked whether the entire pandemic shutdown had been a farce.

Public health experts “didn’t really believe what they were saying all along. Because an infectious disease does not care about the reason you are gathering or how important it is. It has no social conscience, or conscience of any kind,” Mr. Wolf said. “Which leads me to believe they were doing it because of politics, or desire to control, or whatever.”

Footage from the massive protests that have roiled U.S. cities shows that some of the tens of thousands of protesters are wearing masks, but many are ignoring social distancing rules, leading to fears that the demonstrations could trigger another COVID-19 outbreak.

While most of the protesters appear to be peaceful, the demonstrations have been marred by violence, looting, fire-setting and mayhem by perpetrators who often wear masks, although that may be to avoid being identified by police.

Even so, the letter urged local and state governments: “Do not disband protests under the guise of maintaining public health for COVID-19 restrictions.”

At the same time, the signers said that authorities should anticipate “an increased number of infections in the days following a protest,” and increase access to testing and health care.

The letter did not mention the assaults, property damage or destruction to communities, but focused on the public health danger from “white supremacy,” calling it “a lethal public health issue that contributes to and predates COVID-19.”

“A public health response to these demonstrations is also warranted, but this message must be wholly different from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders,” the letter said. “Infectious disease and public health narratives adjacent to demonstrations against racism must be consciously anti-racist, and infectious disease experts must be clear and consistent in prioritizing an anti-racist message.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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