“I didn’t care if I was exposed to COVID”: Protesters’ anger outweighed their fear of getting sick

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People marched in Austin on Sunday to protest the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Renee Lopez has spent nearly all her time at home in recent weeks, keeping distance from friends and loved ones in the hopes of staying safe from the new coronavirus. Lopez, 58, uses a wheelchair because of a congenital joint disease, and she worries her disability could put her at greater risk of serious illness.

But on Saturday, as thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, a blossoming anger displaced the fear Lopez had felt about the coronavirus — and led her and a few hundred other demonstrators to gather at Austin’s police headquarters. She could no longer “sit idly by,” and if the price of protest was her health, she thought, then so be it.

“I didn’t care if I was exposed to COVID,” she said, though she tried to stay away from the thickest crowds. “I had this single-mindedness to go and protest because I feel like I just can’t take it anymore.”

Protests sparked by Floyd’s death took place in major cities across the country this weekend, blocking traffic, closing businesses and focusing the nation’s attention on police violence and racial inequality. Footage from a now-viral video showed that Floyd, who is black, died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck long past the point when he lost consciousness. Chauvin, 44, was fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Those demonstrations also brought thousands of people into close contact with each other in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, leading politicians and health experts to warn that they may hasten the spread of a disease that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans.

As the protest crowds grew in size, political leaders of Texas’ largest cities interweaved statements of support for demonstrators’ rights of free expression with warnings about the public health risks of gathering in close quarters.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler cited the virus in an announcement that he would not attend any demonstrations. He urged protesters Sunday “to be disciplined about social distancing” by wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart — even as protesters and police officers stood shoulder to shoulder in gatherings of 200 or more.