Despite COVID-19 risks, thousands across NH protest killing of George Floyd

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An estimated crowd of 1,000 people joined a Black Lives Matter rally Saturday on Elm Street. Photo/Stacy Harrison.

The risk of transmitting and catching the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, has shuttered schools, emptied businesses and kept the public socially distant for months. And yet, for more than seven days, thousands have been showing up in New Hampshire and across the country to protest racism and the police killing of George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last week. 

Organizers are taking the health risk into account and encouraging attendees to stay safe, but balancing protests – which have produced large crowds – with social distancing practices has been a challenge at some events.

On Monday, over 1,000 people showed up to a candlelight vigil for George Floyd and others at Henry Law Park in Dover organized by the Dover High School student-run group Project DREAM. Palmira Wilson, one of the student organizers, said the group was handing out masks to those who didn’t have one, but most people had already showed up wearing a face covering. 

“I made sure to announce at the beginning that we were providing masks, and I told people to spread out, but I couldn’t because there were so many people that they couldn’t even spread out. The park was full, back to front,” Wilson said.

Attendees were also encouraged to wear masks at Manchester’s protest on Saturday.

“People were honestly, even while we were marching, pretty socially distant, and pretty much stayed in the clusters that they came in. But obviously being socially distant isn’t going to be perfect during a protest,” said Erica Perez, an organizer of Black Lives Matter in Manchester.

Health experts in New Hampshire have already been expecting a second wave of infection as a result of states’ partial reopening, but without a vaccine or treatment, adding large group protests to the mix could put attendees at higher risk of infection.

National experts have said in published news reports that yelling and chanting, as well as coughing after inhaling tear gas or sneezing to expel pepper spray, will exacerbate the spread.

Events in New Hampshire have been peaceful so far.

“Unfortunately, the whole nature of protesting is a group endeavor, so all of the requirements for social distancing are not typically followed,” said Alexandra Howell, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth.

“I think that if they wore masks that would be preferable, but it’s difficult to understand speech when one is wearing a mask, so I think that the whole nature of demonstrations just puts people who demonstrate at greater risk of transmission and catching COVID,” Howell added.

Kiersten Balukas, who has high blood pressure and is at higher risk of stroke if contracting COVID-19, attended the candlelight vigil in Dover on Monday. She said showing up was worth it.

“These are our brothers and sisters being killed senselessly and at a higher rate than others of different skin colors. I wanted to show up for them, and for my community,” Balukas said. “It’s scary to be at risk, but it’s scarier to know that the people we hire to protect us are doing the opposite.”

Perez says there are ways people can still be supportive of the protests, even if they can’t be there in person.

“Only people that are in good health and don’t think they’re at risk should be coming to our events,” Perez said. “For our last protest, people who didn’t feel comfortable actually going to the march drove around in their cars and honked as a way to support, or they parked along our route and they had signs.”

Adds Wilson, “You don’t necessarily have to come outside. You can put posters in your car, posters in your windows. You have a platform. Social media is always a platform.”

So far, major protests have occurred in Manchester, Dover, Conway and Hampton, with others planned for Portsmouth and Nashua. A “socially distant”protest, organized by students at the University of New Hampshire,  is also planned for Durham on Sunday. According to the Facebook post for the protest, “We still would like to practice safe social distancing rules therefore please remember to bring a mask… We would love to have as many people come as possible, however we understand some people are unable to participate. If that is your case, we encourage you to get involved in other ways.”


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

 

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