As thousands take to the streets to protest police brutality and demand justice for the killing of Black people in America, Oregon leaders are expressing concern that such mass gatherings could hasten the spread of the coronavirus — something that’s already taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color.
Since late last week, tens of thousands of people have been gathering each evening in cities across the United States — most to express their outrage and demand justice and reforms following the killing of George Floyd. The Minneapolis man, who was African American, died May 25 after a white police officer planted his knee on Floyd’s neck, pinning him down for nearly nine minutes.
The protests stretched into a fourth day in Portland on Monday. Thousands of demonstrators have taken part in events there, as well as in Salem, and Eugene. Many have worn protective face masks, but social distancing hasn't been practiced.
By Monday, Oregon state officials began to voice their concerns that the coronavirus may begin to spread once again and continue to affect Black and Brown communities whose members are on the frontlines of the protests and who are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
During a press conference, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she understands the need and the reason to take to the streets and protest, but she fears for the safety and well being of the community.
“After three nights of thousands of people side by side protesting, I am very concerned that COVID-19 will be exacerbated in Multnomah County and it will be exacerbated because we know that Black and Brown people suffer three times harsher outcomes with COVID-19 than the white population,” Hardesty said on Monday afternoon before Portland’s fourth day of protests were fully underway. Hardesty asked people to be mindful while protesting and if they can, to stay home and be with their families instead.
“Yes, civil rights are important, racial justice is necessary, but we have to live in order to be able to change the systems that have been oppressing Black people since we got here,” Hardesty said.
Gov. Kate Brown expressed similar sentiments but said she also wants people to exercise their constitutional rights while staying safe.
“I want to encourage protestors to stay safe, and that means continuing to wear your face coverings. If you feel that you need to be out on the streets to maintain social distancing, 6-feet apart to the extent possible,” Brown said.
There are growing concerns of a spike in coronavirus cases, especially in Multnomah County. It’s the only one of Oregon’s 36 counties that has not yet applied for a phase 1 reopening. Officials are expected on Friday to seek approval, which could lead to an initial reopening as early as June 12.
One of Oregon’s seven prerequisites before approving a county for the first phase of reopening is that it must have had 14 days of decline in COVID-19 hospital admissions. The way mass gatherings can provide a breeding ground for the virus to spread, it’s possible that a spike in hospitalizations in Multnomah County would prevent it from meeting that benchmark.
Despite that, during a press conference Monday, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the county still expects to submit an application Friday with that June 12 reopening date as a target.
“We are concerned. We’re nervous. We really don’t want to be reopening to benefit some at the expense of others. I think if we saw a big spike in the number of people who had contracted COVID-19, especially if they end up hospitalized, that would be a sign for us,” Kafoury said. “I think we would much rather slow our reopening plan then to reopen and then have to close back down."
Kafoury said Multnomah County’s plan to reopen will focus on putting the well-being of communities of colors first. But despite putting their best plan forward, she said if coronavirus has taught them anything, it's that things never seem to go to plan.
An Oregon Health Authority spokesman said it’s concerned large gatherings will increase the spread of coronavirus.
OHA Lead Communications Officer Jonathan Modie said OHA recognizes and honors people exercising their constitutional right to peacefully assemble.
“Right now, the state is in the midst of a pandemic. Large gatherings do raise the risk of transmitting the virus,” Modie said. “So we encourage people taking part in these protests to do everything they can to practice important prevention steps we have been talking about for the past three months.”
Community organizer Fran Bittakis said she's been doing just that: trying to encourage fellow protesters to stay safe. The group she founded, Snack Bloc, has been providing free materials to meet demonstrators' basic needs. That includes water, food and changes of clothes. She said Snack Bloc has also passed out hand sanitizer, gloves, and face masks but this time around, groups have donated facial cloth masks.
Bittakis said initially she wavered on whether she should be there. On the one hand, she wanted to keep her community safe by continuing to practice responsible social distancing and staying close to home. But in the end, she decided, "I need to use my privilege and be there and support this effort and the folks that would be there."