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Protests in Philly haven’t meant a spike in COVID-19 cases so far, health officials report

Both hospitalizations and rates of COVID-19 positive tests remain low two weeks after major demonstrations began in Philadelphia.

Protesters calling to defund the police march down East Market Street near Eighth Street in Center City on Saturday.
Protesters calling to defund the police march down East Market Street near Eighth Street in Center City on Saturday.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Two weeks after protests in Philadelphia drew crowds of thousands and led to clashes with police, data maintained by the city indicate the large gatherings haven’t caused a spike in COVID-19 cases so far.

“We can’t guarantee there’s not going to be a later rise,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, “but it’s a good sign we haven’t seen it yet.”

Farley and other health experts said that since the protests were outdoors and many people wore masks, a surge might not result.

Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer sparked international protests, also has avoided a spike related to demonstrations so far.

More than 3,300 protest participants in Minnesota were tested for COVID-19, and a review of 40% of those tests done in St. Paul and Minneapolis showed just 1.4% tested positive, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

“I do think it bodes well for outdoor activities where people are wearing masks,” Farley said. “I’d worry far more about indoor activities, and activities where people are not wearing a mask and are much closer to each other.”

Still, some features of the protests — clashes with police, officers teargassing crowds, and arrests — could mean trouble. Farley said he won’t be certain that the protests didn’t aggravate the pandemic until there have been two more weeks of low positive test rates and hospitalizations.

Why so long? Drexel epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur noted that the protesters tended to be younger and might be asymptomatic carriers who might pass the virus along to more vulnerable older relatives.

Still, he agreed the early indicators were positive. “At the same time, we were on a lower trajectory for infections already in Philadelphia,” he said. “There may have been less [virus] in the community, period.”

Other parts of the country, though, are seeing worrying upticks in cases apparently unrelated to the uprisings. Thousands are sick across the Sun Belt and the West, the New York Times reported, with Texas, Arizona, and Florida showing significant case increases. New cases are climbing in 22 states, the Times reported, and indicators point to reopening businesses, restaurants, and other public places as the cause.

New Jersey continued to take major steps toward reopening the state Monday. Nonessential retail shopping, outdoor dining, and day cares reopened, and people wasted no time taking advantage.

» READ MORE: As Jersey Shore coronavirus cases prove value of contact tracing, post-protest testing in Philly could be scarce

At the Nordstrom Rack in the Market Place at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, shoppers rummaged through discount racks, undeterred by fitting rooms closed for safety reasons. Some tried on pants by pulling them over leggings in the shoe section. Outdoor eateries in South Jersey benefited from an idyllic summer day.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to eat outside,” said Al Schmidt, a regular at the Bistro at Haddonfield with his wife, Bobbie. “It’s nice to get out and see people.”

In an interview with NBC’s Today Monday morning, though, Gov. Phil Murphy would not rule out reinstituting shutdowns if the rules are violated and cases go up.

“You have to leave that on the table as a consideration,” Murphy said. “I hope to God we don’t have to.”

Murphy said New Jersey has one of the lowest transmission rates in the country after being one of the nation’s hot spots.

Two Southeastern Pennsylvania counties remained optimistic they would be able to shift from the “yellow” to “green” phase of the state’s reopening system. Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, counties that continue to improve for 14 days can go to the next phase, and Bucks and Montgomery County officials said their infection and hospitalization numbers are going in the right direction.

“We all wish we were green, and think we should be green now,” Bucks Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia told residents during a virtual town hall meeting on Monday. “So we understand your frustration. But we are going to get there.”

In recent weeks, the county has logged 26 or fewer additional cases a day. Some of those cases were added to the county total but were no longer considered infectious due to delays between the onset of illness and the receipt of a positive test result by the county.

Ellis-Marseglia and her fellow commissioners said they were proud of the county’s low numbers, which they attributed to a robust contact tracing program and residents’ dedication to social distancing and wearing masks.

Montgomery County reported 39 new cases Monday and one death. There were 95 people hospitalized with COVID-19, said Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh, a physician. The county on Monday restored some access to Green Lane Park, Upper Schuylkill Valley Park, and Central Perkiomen Park, she said.

“We are seeing our cases slowly and steadily decreasing,” she said. “We believe that moving to the green phase is getting close.”

In the green phase, businesses can operate with 75% occupancy and restaurants can move to 50% occupancy. Social gatherings of up to 250 people will be allowed. Hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and spas would all be able to operate at 50% occupancy.

Philadelphia is not likely to join neighboring counties in the green phase come June 26, though, Farley said.

“I am skeptical that we’ll be ready for it by then,” he said. “There are things we need to put in place to feel safe.”

The wave of protests initially worried Farley as a possible catalyst for a coronavirus resurgence in Philadelphia. The city has seen an increase in testing and positive test results, Farley said, but the rate of tests that came back positive from June 8 to 14 has stayed low, less than 6%. In April, the rate reached 31%, Drexel’s LeVasseur said.

Farley had recommended that people who attended protests be tested so they could self-isolate if necessary. But test sites do not ask people if they attended the events, so there’s no way to know if that’s why more tests are being done.

Hospitalizations, too, have stayed low. The city had just one hospital admission due to COVID-19 on June 11, the most recent data available. That’s the fewest there have been since March 14, when there were two.

Philadelphia reported 137 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths Monday. Pennsylvania reported 323 new cases and 28 additional deaths.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia officials tell protesters to get tested for coronavirus or stay home

In New Jersey, 12,676 have died of the virus, more than the state lost during World War II, Murphy said in a news briefing Monday. He urged people to continue wearing masks and to be wary of gathering indoors. In the next week, he said, some outdoor sports would resume, followed later by high contact sports like football.

“Our goal is not to experience the spike that other states are seeing because we tried to do too much too soon,” Murphy said. “We want to get this economic restart going, but our ultimate goal remains to save lives.”

Staff writer Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.