As a 72-year old, Lawrence Lane recognizes he’s in an age group that’s at a higher risk for severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
The disease has been on his mind — he wears a mask and practices social distancing. But when a wave of protests started to emerge across the nation over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, Lane, who is black, felt a sense of commitment.
“It’s not that I didn’t think about COVID, but I feel like this particular cause is a greater cause,” he said. “I know COVID is out there, but I feel like this is my duty.”
Bystanders recorded Floyd’s death on video, which shows former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin holding the 46-year-old down by placing a knee on his neck, while Floyd, who is black, pleaded that he could not breathe. Three other officers were present.
Chauvin was fired and charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers present that day were fired and charged as accessories.
As protests have spread in cities across the country and drawn crowds of thousands of people, often in close proximity to one another, health experts have warned the gatherings might accelerate the spread of COVID-19.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department in a recent Facebook post recommended that protestors wear masks and try to stay at least six feet apart.
“We understand that this is an extremely difficult time for many,” it said. “We are battling a global pandemic and many of our friends and neighbors are facing grief and pain as recent events unfold across the country.”
As of Thursday, 344 Oklahomans had died after becoming infected with COVID-19, and there were 6,907 confirmed cases in the state, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. On average, there has been an uptick in new cases over the past week.
Lane spent last Saturday at a protest in Tulsa, his hometown, where hundreds of people gathered in the city’s Brookside neighborhood. He wore a mask and stayed on the outskirts of large groups, about six to 10 feet away from others, he said.
As a government teacher of high school seniors in Checotah and a member of the Oklahoma Education Association board of directors, Lane considers himself a leader. He plans to teach his students about why the protests took place, their First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble, and share stories about his life, such as his experiences with law enforcement.
“I came from poverty, so I understand privilege,” he said. “I have been afforded some privilege in some regards because I build relationships with people. That’s an important thing that needs to come out of all these protests.”
Lane said he welcomes “anything that opens up dialogue” about race.
“For too long, we haven’t seen that dialogue,” he said.
Studies show that people are at greater risk of getting infected with COVID-19 while indoors, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, enterprise chief quality officer at OU Medicine. That’s in part because air flow is less robust inside than it would be outside on a windy day, he said.
But that doesn’t mean people can’t get infected outside — outdoor transmission has been documented, Bratzler said, and it largely depends on the density of people in an area.
Police have used tear gas and other irritants in an effort to disperse protestors in Oklahoma, which irritates mucous membranes and can cause people to cough, sneeze and tear up.
“It increases your risk of infection and the people around you,” Bratzler said.
Though many people have worn masks at gatherings, protestors often remove them to wash irritants off their faces, he said. That can increase the risk of infection as respiratory droplets get into the area.
Bratzler recommended people wear masks and try to practice social distancing at protests.
Experts say it would take around 10 to 14 days to know whether there is a spike in cases connected to demonstrations.
In Oklahoma City over the past week, there have been ongoing demonstrations, protests and marches over systemic racism and police brutality.
Jae Morrison, 35, lives in Oklahoma City and has attended two protests. After recently completing his masters in public health at Creighton University, he’s felt conflicted about attending events amid the pandemic, he said. He’s been cautious since COVID-19 started to emerge in Oklahoma, and has done “as much” as he can to practice social distancing.
But ultimately, Morrison, who is black, felt it was his “obligation” to go.
“To go out, I felt like it was part of the statement during COVID-19 knowing the risk,” he said. “I needed the governor, our mayor, our city council to see this is worth my life.”
He was more concerned he could unknowingly give the disease to someone else than he was with getting infected himself, Morrison said. He estimated about 75 percent of protestors wore masks, and many groups were passing them out to people.
On a hot and humid day, he wore a full suit to a protest in Oklahoma City, because when he was young and learning about the Civil Rights Movement, that’s how he saw “people who looked like” him protesting.
“I put the emotional response aside to participate in these protests in a way that I think would be beneficial,” he said. “But it is a very strong calling.”
RJ Young, of Tulsa, said COVID-19 was on the top of the list of threats to his health “until quite literally last week.”
“It occupied so much of my brain, it changed my routine completely,” he said.
Young published an audio diary in partnership with KOSU on Tuesday, where he said he now considers racism as the biggest threat to his health.
As he observed a demonstration in downtown Tulsa’s Greenwood District on Sunday, it struck him, Young said in the audio diary.
“They wore masks, they held signs,” he said. “They chanted together. Marched together, at a time where we’re all supposed to be at home, for threat of a pandemic, that all of a sudden is not the most threatening disease in my life anymore.
“No, racism has taken back the No.1 spot in the power rankings.”