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Officials: Gatherings may spike COVID-19 case totals

MIAMI — In hindsight, Rosa Jimenez Cano realizes that attending a protest against police brutality was risky — and not just for the usual reasons.

“This can be kind of a tinderbox for COVID,” the 39-year-old venture capitalist said after attending a demonstration in Florida, one of many around the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

As more beaches, churches, mosques, schools and businesses reopened worldwide, the sudden and mass civil unrest in the United States is raising fears of new virus outbreaks in a country that has more confirmed infections and deaths than any other. And it’s not just in the U.S. — London hosted a large anti-racism protest Sunday where demonstrators violated social distancing rules.

Jimenez Cano said she planned to self-quarantine for 14 days, worrying she was perhaps “irresponsible” when she attended Saturday night’s protest in Miami, where she exposed herself to crowds of people.

Protests over Floyd’s death — the latest in a series of killings of black men and women at the hands of police in America — have shaken the country from Minneapolis to New York, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Some turned into riots and clashes with police, leaving stores in flames and torched cars in the streets.

Health experts fear that silent carriers of the virus could unwittingly infect others at protests where people are packed cheek to jowl, many without masks, many chanting, singing or shouting. The virus is dispersed by microscopic droplets in the air when people cough, sneeze, sing or talk.

“There’s no question that, when you put hundreds or thousands of people together in close proximity, when we have got this virus all over the streets … it’s not healthy,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“Two weeks from now across America, we’re going to find out whether or not this gives us a spike and drives the numbers back up again or not.”

The U.S. has seen over 1.7 million infections and nearly 104,000 deaths in the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected racial minorities in a nation that does not have universal health care.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said Sunday she was very concerned that the protests in the nation’s capital and elsewhere could provide fertile ground for a new series of outbreaks. Many of the protesters were wearing masks, but there were no attempts at social distancing.

“We’ve been working very hard in these last eight to 10 weeks to not have any mass gatherings,” she said. “As a nation, we have to be concerned about a rebound.”

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.

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