San Antonio health officials are keeping a watchful eye on whether Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality could expose participants to the coronavirus.

Anita Kurian, assistant director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and local doctors are urging protesters to continue to follow health guidelines, such as wearing masks, as they gather, march, and chant – all activities that could increase the spread of the virus. The protests, which have occurred in large cities and small towns across the nation, began locally May 30 following the death earlier that week of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Demonstrations of varying sizes, from several thousand people to a few dozen, have continued daily.

In covering the protests, the Rivard Report staff members have observed irregular use of face coverings by participants. Typically, only about half of protest participants have been properly wearing face masks over their mouth and nose, with others either carrying a mask or having it pushed under their chin.

A group called the Reliable Revolutionaries hosted a “Poetry & Black History” protest Monday in front of police headquarters downtown. The event drew 35 attendees, 16 of whom were wearing masks.

“We’re trying to take all the precautions we can while we’re out here,” said Jourdyn Parks, the group’s founder. While not wearing a mask herself, Parks said she and the other activists encouraged use of hand sanitizer between holding a microphone or bullhorn used to address the crowd.

Mecca Miles, 27, who attended the protest, said she thinks people’s willingness to come out to the protests shows how seriously they take police brutality and injustice.

“Coronavirus is still a very real threat,” Miles said from behind her canary yellow face mask. “But it’s not the only thing out here killing us [people of color].”

The effects of the protests on local case numbers won’t be known for at least a couple of weeks, said Dr. Robert Ferrer, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UT Health San Antonio

It can take between five to 14 days after someone is exposed to the virus for the onset of symptoms, Ferrer said, during which time an infected person is contagious and continues to spread the virus, he said.

“We anticipate as people crowd together there’s a heightened risk for transmission, but it also depends on what people do,” Ferrer said. 

Factors such as the length of time spent together, how many people were wearing masks, if people properly socially distanced or not, and the location of a demonstration are factors at play, he said.

Madison Brimhall, 16, attended a protest in Alamo Heights last week with her brother; both wore masks. She said she was a little nervous about attending the event because both she and her mother have autoimmune deficiencies.

“My mom has [Lyme Disease] and I have some lung problems,” Brimhall said. “It’s scary, but you can’t let fear take over you because this is an important time and it’s going to be part of history, and you should go out and do as much as you can to support what’s happening.”

While protests being outside can allow for more social distancing, protests include a lot of yelling and talking, which could lead to transmission by infected people emitting droplets containing the coronavirus, Ferrer said.

By the time cases are able to be traced back to the protests, they could be growing locally at an exponential rate, he said.

In recent days, health officials have reported a surge in positive coronavirus cases in Bexar County, an increase officials have attributed to Memorial Day weekend gatherings, which coincided with additional business openings. However, Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick said last week that the recent wave of diagnosed cases weren’t tied to protests.

As of Tuesday evening, there were 4,873 positive coronavirus cases in Bexar County since the start of the pandemic. The local death toll stood at 89.

“We want to remind folks that we’re not out of the woods yet,” Kurian said. “We still have to continue to take those measures – all measures – to protect [ourselves] from COVID-19.”

The fact protesters are still congregating during a pandemic shows how seriously they take their cause, said Adelita Cantu, associate professor at UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing. Cantu said she understands the need for justice and hoped protesters will wear masks, bring sound makers rather than yell, wash their hands, and stay home when sick. 

“Communities of color, minorities … [are the] populations most at risk, and it speaks to us of how much this topic of injustice is so important, that those who are vulnerable are willing to risk their health to get the word out – that’s important for us to understand,” Cantu said.

Recent studies have shown African American communities and other people of color are disproportionately at risk for becoming ill – and dying from – the coronavirus.

As summer temperatures hit triple digits in San Antonio, Cantu also advised protesters to stay hydrated and cool, standing in shade when possible and drinking plenty of water.

“It’s not just COVID protesters have to worry about,” she said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...