Unmasked Police Are a Risk to Protesters — and Each Other

Why aren’t police wearing masks at protests?

Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog
5 min readJun 9, 2020

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Members of the New York City Police Department look on from the Midtown North Precinct as protesters march on June 7, 2020, in New York. Photo: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

In New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic and site of ongoing protests against racism and police brutality, many police have not been wearing masks. This weekend, New York Police Department officers stood along demonstration routes with exposed faces as passing protesters chanted, “Where are your masks?”

Though the United States is reopening, Covid-19 has not yet been eliminated, and in some states, the case count is rising. It’s well established that the coronavirus primarily spreads by droplets released by sick people when they cough, sneeze, and talk. Though masks aren’t perfect, they help reduce transmission via those droplets. Governments around the world have endorsed mask-wearing to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and the World Health Organization followed suit on Friday after months of reluctance.

This makes the refusal of some police officers to wear masks in New York — as well as in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, among other cities — especially alarming. In an interview with The Atlantic, Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said it is the duty of the police and state to keep protesters safe from viral spread, regardless of their opinion on the protests.

NYPD officers are required to wear masks and were lambasted by mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday for not doing so at protests this weekend. Unmasked police pose a risk to protesters, not to mention others on the police force and first responders, explains Dominique Heinke, a Harvard-trained epidemiologist based in Massachusetts.

“Because police officers are often in contact with the public, they are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus than most people,” Heinke tells the Medium Coronavirus Blog. “This means they are more likely to be infected. Since we know that many people do not develop symptoms, they may feel healthy while working at a protest but be exhaling coronavirus with each breath.” Masks, she notes, are particularly important in confined spaces like vehicles or indoor enclosures where there is less air circulation.

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Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.