Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore officials and public health experts voiced concern Sunday that protests in the city and elsewhere could lead to a surge in new cases of the coronavirus as the state confirmed 763 news cases and 21 more deaths.
“There’s no question that when you put hundreds or thousands of people together in close proximity when we’ve got this virus all over the streets, it’s not healthy,” Hogan said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning.
Noting the disease’s long incubation period, the Republican governor added “two weeks from now, across America, we’re going to find out whether this gives us a spike and drives the numbers back up.”
Hundreds of people demonstrated Saturday in Baltimore to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died Monday in Minnesota after a white officer knelt on his neck for at least seven minutes. The large crowd — some not wearing masks — chanted and shouted while marching next to one another and standing in close proximity across from police, wearing masks earlier in the day and riot helmets later in the evening.
While protesters either decided the risk was worth it or dismissed it, Hogan, along with Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, and Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa expressed concern that the protests could cause a spike in infections if proper social distancing measures aren’t observed.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the city will hand out 5,000 masks to protesters and that, while Baltimore has not instituted a curfew as other cities have, it’s “not off the table.”
“It’s for the protection of everyone that’s out there,” Davis said.
The virus spreads via microscopic droplets, typically through the air when people cough, sneeze, sing or talk. Dr. Tom Inglesby, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that while the disease has been transmitted mostly inside, that “doesn’t mean that there is no risk outside.”
Dzirasa, a black woman, said during a news conference Sunday that she understood the outrage spurred by Floyd’s death, but it should not mean people should risk others’ safety by not adhering to social distancing measures.
“If you are like me, you may be wrestling with the feeling that so many things are out of your control,” Dzirasa said. “However, this is one instance where we can all help control the spread of COVID-19 by taking the necessary precautions.”
She said that the city has seen positive gains in lowering the transmission rate of the disease, but that “COVID-19 can spread easily and rapidly in large groups of people in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
Dzirasa warned that it could lead to a “superspreader” event. In such events, just one infected individual who may not even be showing symptoms can infect many others who attend.
The concern is shared nationwide. The mayor of Atlanta, one of dozens of U.S. cities hit by massive protests, has a message for demonstrators: “If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week.”
Even the many protesters wearing masks are not guaranteed protection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cloth masks keep infected people from spreading the virus but are not designed to protect wearers from getting it.
Betty-Jean Coleman and Tony Price both wore masks as they watched people chanting and carrying signs near City Hall. The two said they weren’t up for walking around Baltimore Sunday night with the dozens of protestors but said they planned to participate in gatherings Monday. They also said they were outside City Hall last night but left when things started to get tense.
Even though Maryland is still grappling with coronavirus, both Lakewood neighborhood residents said participating in this movement was more important.
“What’s going on is a whole different thing,” said Price, 23. “It’s so severe and for the first time it feels like people are really coming together.”
After his CNN appearance, Hogan wrote on Twitter that the “vast majority of demonstrators" kept “gatherings safe and respectful,” but again stressed “the importance of reducing risks of spreading COVID-19 while protesters peacefully express their First Amendment rights.”
Hogan said his immediate concern is working to “lower the temperature” on the streets, and ensuring people are safe if there are riots and more looting.
Cities across the country are instituting curfews and shutting down city services to curtail what have become sometimes violent protests in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Philadelphia shut down train and bus service at 6 p.m. Sunday after 215 people were arrested when peaceful protests gave way to looting and fires downtown.
With Floyd’s death and police departments’ relationship with the black community now at the forefront of public debate, officials are juggling how to give demonstrators the best platform to voice their outrage while not risking everyone’s health.
Andrew Radding, a Baltimore-based attorney and former president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, said police must balance discretion with public safety but actually have more leeway to disperse crowds due to the coronavirus.
While Hogan has lifted certain restrictions and allowed local leaders to chart their own path to reopen businesses, Young extended the city’s stay-at-home order, saying the city didn’t have sufficient testing to make it safe to reopen.
Radding said that means police could cite and even arrest people for not following those orders or for refusing to obey social distancing guidelines. He added, however, that police should use discretion and not focus on arresting those people.
“It’s going to be a delicate balance and the bigger risk, as I see it, is not the spread of [the coronavirus] ... but the danger of escalating what is an acceptable right to meet, protest [and] speak,” Radding said.
The new coronavirus cases and deaths announced Sunday bring Maryland to 52,778 total cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and 2,411 people who have died due to complications from the disease.
Maryland health officials also reported that 1,183 people are hospitalized due to the disease, a decrease of 56 patients from the day before, when the state reached the lowest number of hospitalizations in more than a month.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties continue to lead the state in confirmed coronavirus cases, with 15,220 and 11,361 cases, respectively. ]
The virus continues to disproportionately affect the state’s Latino and black populations, with Sunday’s numbers still showing that the Hispanic community is contracting the disease at a faster rate. As of Sunday, more than a quarter of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 were in Hispanic patients, with 13,377, despite the fact that Latinos make up roughly 10% of the state’s population.
This doesn’t account for the fact that the Maryland Department of Health does not have demographic data for roughly 20% of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the state.
The 20783 ZIP code — which includes parts of Hyattsville, Adelphi and Langley Park in Prince George’s County and is majority Hispanic, according to censusreporter.org — leads the state in total cases with 1,875 cases. In a little more than two weeks, officials have confirmed more than 600 new cases of COVID-19 in this ZIP code alone.
Neighborhoods in northwestern and southeastern parts of Baltimore City continue to represent a significant percentage of the city’s cases.
The 21224 ZIP code, which includes Canton, Highlandtown and parts of Dundalk, has 939 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the most of any ZIP code within the city limits. About 19% of the population of the 21224 ZIP code is Hispanic, according to censusreporter.org.
The 21215 ZIP code, which includes parts of Northwest Baltimore and Baltimore County, has 685 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Officials said that more than a third of those cases, 252, were confirmed at the FutureCare Lochearn nursing home in Northwest Baltimore.
Sunday’s figures continued the trend of a decreasing rate of positive COVID-19 tests, with 10.9% of people testing positive statewide.
However, Maryland’s positivity rate remains one of the highest in the nation, according to Johns Hopkins University, and many health officials advise that states should reach a 5% positive test rate before relaxing actions taken to reduce infections.
Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and McKenna Oxenden and The Associated Press contributed to this article.