How to protect your safety and health while protesting during COVID-19
By Caty Vigil
News of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers, following the death of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, has ushered in new heartbreak and grief to an already difficult landscape with the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to yet another tragedy illuminating the devaluation and dehumanization of black lives caused by the very systems that claim to protect, it is no wonder that people across the country have been galvanized to stand together in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement and protest racial injustice embedded in the structures of our society. If you decide to attend a protest, thank you for lending your voice to the demand for accountability and end to systemic racism. Students vs Pandemics hopes to share here some recommendations and guidelines for protecting your health and safety, as well as the health and safety of those around you, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before You Go
Do: Wear a cloth face covering or mask. This is a must; it protects you and those around you, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opt for supportive, close-toed shoes to avoid injury and tripping, especially in the case that you need to exit a situation quickly. A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen (but not oil-based sunscreen, see below) will help protect you from sun exposure. Compared to clothing made with synthetic fibers like nylon, cotton clothing is less likely to cling to your skin and further complicate burns in the event of a fire. Tie back long hair. Cover-up tattoos to protect your identity. Finally, wear heat-protective gloves to protect yourself in the event you are near fire or tear gas canisters.
Don’t: Wear flip-flops, sandals, or other footwear that could increase your risk of tripping. Consider avoiding make-up around your eyes or mouth, which can become a further irritant in the event of tear gas or pepper concentrate exposure. Avoid wearing oil-based make-up or skincare products, which can cause the tear gas powder to stick to your skin longer. Contact lenses can also trap irritating chemicals, so opt for glasses, preferably well-secured, instead.
Bring a Buddy
Try your best to avoid attending a protest alone and, to minimize the likelihood of virus transmission, keep groups small. Communicate with your friends to create a meet-up and exit plan. Whether you go alone or with others, make sure to share your location and plans with a trusted friend or loved-one so that they can check-in with you to make sure you get there and back safely.
Make sure to bring, at the minimum, a water bottle (with a squirt-cap, if possible), your identification, a charged cell-phone, hand-sanitizer, an emergency contact card, and some cash in small bills with you to the protest. These items should be easy to carry on your person and secured in a light backpack or bag. Other helpful supplies include snacks, goggles, a jacket, non-oil-based sunscreen, a charger, and basic first-aid supplies. Make sure to pack any necessary medications like inhalers and EpiPens in their original, labeled packaging.
Know the Area
Familiarize yourself with the surrounding area by taking some time to go over a map of your route and surrounding streets. Where will you meet your group if there is an emergency or you get separated? Where are some safe exit points, or places to run for cover, if the situation escalates beyond your comfort level or becomes dangerous?
At the Protest
Practice Situational Awareness
Keep an eye on your surroundings throughout the protest, and let someone around you know if something or someone is worrying you. Listen to organizers, especially about when and where to move, and avoid the center of the crowd so that you can exit a dangerous situation quickly. Check-in with yourself about how you’re feeling and check-in with those around you. Consider turning location-services off on your cell-phone or keeping your phone on airplane mode, as both counter-protesters and law-enforcement can use this information to track identity and movement.
Avoid Direct Contact with the Police
Police must avoid the use of force in non-violent protests, but the country has seen tremendous conflict between protesters and law-enforcement this week. Maintain distance from police-force and do not resist arrest if you are detained. More on what to do if you are arrested here.
A Note on Tear-Gas
Tear gas, or CS gas, has been fired at protesters in the past few days. Commonly used against crowds, tear gas is actually not a gas at all, but a fine, crystalline powder capable of sticking to mucous membranes and clothes. Having water or saline solution on hand can help you to immediately rinse your eyes and mouth and is the best liquid to begin clearing the substance from your system. Contrary to popular belief, a bandana soaked in lemon juice and water will likely not serve you if tear gas is deployed. The best protective gear for tear gas and other chemicals deployed in crowd-control is a gas-mask and goggles.
If you are exposed to tear gas without protection, do your best to remain calm and try to protect your airway by covering it with the inside of a jacket or other item of clothing and immediately move to fresh air. Avoid running as this may cause you to breathe in more of the tear gas. You will need to shower in cold water as soon as possible to remove the chemical from your clothes and skin (do not take a bath). Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University, recommends that those exposed to tear gas avoid washing their faces from the forehead down, which can cause more of the irritants to wash into the eyes. Dr. Jordt and the CDC also recommend that individuals avoid using milk, particularly milk that has been unrefrigerated, as it may not be sterile. Tear-gas, while not usually life-threatening, can cause serious injuries and remains on clothing and equipment for months, so make sure to thoroughly wash or discard any items that have been contaminated. The CDC recommends that individuals avoid pulling clothes exposed to tear gas over the head, which can irritate the face further. Avoid rubbing your eyes and face, as this worsens irritation by reactivating the irritating crystals.
If you are ill or are experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus, such as a dry cough or fever, protect your fellow protesters and stay home. Continue to maintain social distancing guidelines of 6 feet between bodies during demonstrations. This may not be possible at every moment, but you can still minimize the likelihood of spreading or contracting the disease by refraining from hugging, embracing, yelling, or speaking for long periods of time with others face-to-face. Use hand-sanitizer frequently and wash your hands when possible.
Yelling and singing can spread virus-containing droplets. Choose noise-makers, signs, and drums instead. If someone is yelling, consider moving to a different area. We recognize how difficult it is to remember recommendations like social distancing during this time, but taking steps to protect your health and that of other members of your community is an important part of the fight. Consider getting tested for COVID-19 five days after attending a protest. If you cannot get tested, consider self-quarantining for at least 14 days after attending a protest.
Large crowds, loud sounds, and uncertain situations can trigger panic attacks and other mental health emergencies, especially for those struggling with conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Panic Disorder. If you know a protest might be overwhelming for you, consider taking action in ways (such as donating or writing your government representatives) that will protect your mental health and wellbeing.
If you see someone who may be struggling alone, ask if you can guide them to a safe and quiet place, and listen non-judgmentally to their concerns. Offer reassurance and help to contact the person’s loved ones or healthcare providers, if available. During periods of intense emotion or a panic attack, paced breathing (an easy technique to remember: breath in for a count of four, hold for four, and breath out for six) can help calm the nervous system. If you find yourself beginning to struggle, it’s okay to remove yourself from the situation. You can always come back when you feel better. Avoid leaving the crowd alone and seek help from those around you.
We hope that you will not need to use all of these measures and be able to safely and healthily return home at the end of a demonstration, but also want to offer the tools that you can use in the case that you need them to help protect and care for yourself and others during such a critical time.
ACLU - Protesters’ Rights
More Tear Gas Information
Black Lives Matter
Ways to Help Support Protestors
SAMSHA’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse National Helpline