It Matters What You're Gathering for During a Pandemic

Jack Holmes
Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images

From Esquire

It seems like a relatively safe assumption that the massive protests for racial justice that have sprung up across the country following George Floyd's killing at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department will lead to more COVID-19 cases. It's lots of people gathered together in close proximity, chanting and shouting. Granted, it's outside, where scientists believe the coronavirus may not spread as well, and by pretty much all accounts, the vast majority of attendees are wearing masks. But there will likely be more cases now than if there were no protests.

What people who support both the protests and social-distancing guidelines believe is that the issues at the center of these demonstrations are matters of sufficient urgency, and carry such moral weight, that people gathering this way in a pandemic is justified. For one thing, the same people whose lives protesters are insisting matter belong to the same demographics most likely to contract—and die from—COVID-19. Black Americans are more likely to work "essential" jobs they can't do from home, and they have less access to healthcare. The spread of the virus is itself a testament to the persistent structural inequities in American life. Supporters of the movement for black lives believe this cannot wait.

The theoretical gotcha here is that many supporters of these protests criticized the lockdown protests of the last few months as socially irresponsible. This is a contradiction as long as you don't think the reason people are gathered together in close proximity has any bearing on the morality of holding the gathering. Of course, it does. Not all, but many of the lockdown protesters were not even demanding the chance to go back to work themselves in order to regain their livelihoods. Often, they wanted a haircut or to visit a bar or restaurant—that is, they wanted other people to go back to work. This is understandable—we pretty much all want these things—but it is not morally defensible to protest in favor of this during the pandemic, often without wearing masks, in the way the current demonstrations are.

Inevitably, though, this back-and-forth was going to spill into the White House, and it has with the president's planned rally at an arena in Tulsa on Saturday. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany leaned on it Wednesday to dispel criticism of this plan. Apologies for the audio situation here.

The clearest difference between the prospective Trump rally and most Black Lives Matter protests is that the rally will be held inside, where the virus seems to spread more efficiently, and a fair number—if not many—of the attendees will likely not be wearing masks. The campaign has announced it plans to hand out masks and hand sanitizer, and will conduct temperature checks at the door, but it's hard to say how effective these measures will be. For one thing, will the president's supporters wear their masks when he has made such an obvious point of refusing to? Hopefully so, considering Tulsa is currently in the midst of a serious spike in cases. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford said in an interview this weekend that he still hasn't decided whether he'll wear one. That's probably a decent case study. Tulsa's Republican mayor, on the other hand, has voiced his concerns about all this. After all, it's G.T. Bynum who will have to deal with the fallout if something goes wrong. The president will not be sticking around.

But again, it goes beyond the practical differences. Is this rally truly necessary? Does it address an absolutely urgent issue beyond the president's need to hear the roar of an adoring crowd? Beyond the fact that for years now these events have been something approaching the diametric opposite of a rally for racial equality—this one was originally scheduled for Friday, Juneteenth, in a city that was the site of one of this country's most horrific racial atrocities—the president's speech is likely to be a mishmash of ticking off real achievements, revisiting personal feuds, bashing the various Enemies, and lying. Is this morally defensible on its own merits in a time of pandemic disease? It certainly doesn't hold a candle to what's going on in the streets outside.

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