Across the country, protests against police brutality last weekend drew crowds of people out of their homes and in city streets. In Rhode Island, it marked the first major gathering since the coronavirus pandemic. In Providence, protests were peaceful. No confrontations with police. No tear gas. No forced physical contact that could pose obvious risks to those involved. So what's the risk? Health reporter Lynn Arditi talked to Dr. Philip Chan, an infectious disease specialist at Brown University, about the potential impact of these gatherings on efforts to contain the virus. 

(Transcript has been edited for clarity.)

The Public’s Radio: The protests against police brutality this weekend brought out thousands of people from their homes into the streets and cities across the country, including Providence. Are you concerned that this type of mass public gathering could derail Rhode Island's efforts to contain the virus?

Dr. Chan: I have personally been deeply moved by what's going on around the country. And I think it's a symptom of some issues that we need to address, both here in Rhode Island and elsewhere. And in terms of what's going on in the intersection with COVID-19. I do think that we need to be careful about mass gatherings in general. This is why some of these rules and restrictions have been in place across the U.S. in many states, including Rhode Island, because anytime you do have mass gatherings, there is risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, that being said, I do think that it's certainly a good thing that these activities are occurring outdoors. But I would want to encourage people to adhere to local restrictions and limits on public gatherings. 

ThePublic’s Radio: In Rhode Island, the limit for social gatherings is 15. (At the time of last Saturday’s protest, the limit was 5 people.) When you have 1,000 people on the state lawn, most of them wearing masks, spaced a couple feet apart, what are the risks?

Dr Chan: So one, I don't think there's an easy answer to this. But with any mass gathering, you do have to be careful, of course, of droplet transmission. From what we know is that in general, you have to be within six feet of someone for a period of time. You know, time limits of 10 to 15 minutes have been thrown out there. But the closer you are to someone -- and certainly if someone's coughing, sneezing, singing, or potentially, you know, spitting or talking when they spit, etc. -- that would be concerning if there's droplets, small droplets that are being released from someone that someone else could inhale. And those are really the risks in terms of these public gatherings.

The Public’s Radio: You've been working with state health officials on their response to the pandemic. Will these mass gatherings or protests make it harder for states like Rhode Island to do effective contract tracing? And how will people who protested know who they had contact with if they become ill?

Dr. Chan: That's a great question. So one of the ways that we are looking at addressing COVID-19 in the state is through very robust and proactive contact tracing and isolation. The state has asked that people keep a diary and sort of keep a list of who they check in. Certainly, if you don't know who you're with then that's a problem. But there are ways around that too. And I think one way would be that certainly if people are positive or people who become COVID positive, and we're known to attend a public gathering that you can certainly make a broad recommendation than anyone else who attended that public gathering that they should be tested. So you're right, in that it does present some challenges. But I do think that some of those challenges can be overcome.

The Public’s Radio: Do we have the capacity in Rhode Island to test 1,000 or 2,000 people?

Dr. Chan: We do, actually. So we're, you know, as you've probably seen, is that we're one of the leaders in the country in terms of testing. We're testing thousands a day at the moment. And you know, we built up the system to address just that, to be able to test people as part of these outbreak responses or people of contact. So we're there at this time, and we could certainly handle that capacity. Yes.

The Public’s Radio: Dr. Chan when you look at who has been most impacted by the virus, infection rates, as we know, are much higher in communities with higher populations of Latinos and African Americans. I'm wondering what this means for those communities who are also among the most vulnerable to police brutality. If those people of color are at the center of these protests, could they be even more vulnerable to outbreaks now in Rhode Island and in anywhere across the country?

Dr. Chan: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I think it's one of the things that we've realized about the COVID-19 pandemic, as time has moved on. Fortunately, it wasn't that surprising to a number of us that disparities exist, and specifically among African American/ black, Hispanic Latino communities. And at the end of the day, we have to do better in terms of improving access. And this certainly relates to COVID-19 testing. But it also relates to just doing better in terms of improving healthcare access and infrastructure in these communities in general. And that's one of the approaches that we're looking at here in Rhode Island is that we're looking to build up capacity, certainly for COVID-19 testing in these communities, but also shoring up and improving healthcare access in general to some of these communities are a little bit harder hit.

The Public’s Radio: Is it possible for people to wear masks and attend these kinds of protests without any additional risks? Or how would you advise people to weigh that -- people of different ages and health histories -- to weigh those risks? What kinds of questions would you advise them to ask themselves? 

Dr. Chan: You know, again, I know this is, you know, it's a difficult time for many people. And, you know, I do want to encourage people to try their best to adhere to local guidance on public gatherings. You know, this has gotten to that has been thought through with public health, clinical, government leaders, and is really meant to protect people and protect the community as well. So I encourage people just to do their best in terms of protecting themselves and, you know, indirectly protecting others around them, their family, the community. I don't have any easy answers on this one.

The Public’s Radio: So if someone was asking you, what do I do? What do I need to know if I'm going to make that kind of decision? 

Dr. Chan: I would encourage people to follow local public health guidance, whether it be here in Rhode Island or elsewhere. If people are going to do it anyway, I would suggest, of course, masking and doing your best to social distance, but also understanding that in some of these situations it's tough to do. I do encourage people as well to look at alternative ways to engage and get their word out and feel heard. Physical, in-person protesting is obviously one of the cornerstones of what we do in our democracy. But there's also a number of other ways that people can show their support, whether it be donating to causes, or having a social media presence, writing or volunteering for some online organization. So I think there's a number of ways that people can be engaged and be active without necessarily participating at this time in physical gatherings.

-Lynn Arditi, health reporter, can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org