Newsletter: The protest-pandemic public health calculus

Pierre Le delivers hand sanitizer as protesters march past on 9th Street in downtown L.A.
Pierre Le delivers hand sanitizer as protesters march past on 9th Street in downtown L.A.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, June 10, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

After months of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, outrage at police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has spurred tens of thousands of people into the streets.

We know that any gathering — let alone a large one — brings the risk of spreading the coronavirus. So how do protesters and public health officials weigh the risks of mass demonstrations as the pandemic rages on?

There are no simple answers. The pandemic is nowhere near over, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease, has voiced his concerns about the transmission risks inherent to crowded protests.

[See also: “Get tested for coronavirus if you’ve been to a protest, health officials urge” in the Los Angeles Times]


But the coronavirus is far from the only health crisis at play here. Police brutality and racism also represent urgent threats to American public health.

As my colleagues Ron Lin and Colleen Shalby noted in a recent story, health experts characterize racism as the root cause of longstanding public health disparities that date back to the founding of the United States.

That public health crisis doesn’t exist in some separate and sealed-off universe from this pandemic. Its pernicious effects have only been compounded by the coronavirus and tragically reflected in its death toll. In Los Angeles County, Black people are twice as likely to have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as white people.

[Read the story: “Despite coronavirus, these experts support the protests for health reasons” in the Los Angeles Times]

Still, some have critiqued what they see as social-distancing hypocrisy, particularly among liberals who had previously pushed for slower reopenings and condemned anti-lockdown protests. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board recently published an opinion piece decrying “lockdown discrimination” that questioned why Democratic politicians have “let” protesters gather in the streets while continuing to ban other gatherings and maintaining restrictions for the rest of the public.

But Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist, told Vox that she didn’t think the guidance had changed much from a public health perspective. “It’s always been ‘stay home as much as possible, except for essential activities.’ But the definition of essential is not a scientific one — it’s a sociological one. ... Protesting police violence is an essential activity for a lot of people.”

For one Southern California mom, the past few weeks have presented layered safety threats to her and her family. And Brittney Holley, 34, hasn’t taken any of the decisions involved lightly.

Brittney Holley and her cousin, Morris, pass out sandwiches at a downtown L.A. protest.
Brittney Holley, left, and her cousin, Morris, passing out food to protesters in downtown Los Angeles last week.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m out here because I have an African American son,” Holley told me when I met her at a downtown Los Angeles protest last week. At the time, she and her cousin were standing on the lawn south of City Hall, passing out sandwiches to hungry demonstrators. Holley’s son, Bronx, is 5, and her daughter, Britain, is 10.

Bronx has asthma, a preexisting condition that puts him at particular risk for COVID-19. Holley wants to protect her son from the virus. But as a mother, she also needs to protect him from a system that will soon see him as a threat, in a country where getting killed by police remains a leading cause of death for young Black men.

Bronx is “still a baby” — he only just graduated kindergarten a few weeks ago. But he and his mother, who is also Black, have already had “the talk” and even practiced scenarios of what to do when interacting with law enforcement.

“I have to explain to him why he can’t play cops and robbers because of what happened to Tamir Rice,” Holley said, referencing the 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot by Cleveland police while carrying a pellet gun in 2015.

How is any mother supposed to prioritize between two insidious and potentially lethal risks to her own child’s health?

Holley felt that even with a pandemic, she still had to show up for the Black Lives Matter protests after Floyd’s death. So she made the difficult decision to have her two young children stay with her mother and grandmother — their grandmother and great-grandmother — while she was out protesting and for a two-week quarantine period after. She said both relatives had been very supportive of the choice, and her 74-year-old grandmother saw caring for Holley’s children during these weeks as her own way of participating in the protests despite needing to stay home because of her age.

And as for the Sam’s Club cooler bag of homemade peanut butter sandwiches and donated hamburgers that she and her cousin were passing out to fellow protesters?

“If people are out here fighting for me and my two children, I’m going to make sure they’re fed,” Holley said. “Because this work is not easy to do.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Police have killed 885 people in L.A. County since 2000. Nearly 80% were Black or Latino. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, The Times has compiled a database of cases where people died at the hands of law enforcement in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles Times

Who gets blamed if California’s coronavirus reopening gets botched? Some officials insist the increasingly rapid reopening of the economy in California over the last few weeks has been driven by careful health considerations. But there are also political pressures as well. Some businesses battered by months of stay-at-home orders are pushing to open their doors, while some residents object to the government telling them to wear masks and how far apart to stand from each other. Los Angeles Times


There will still be a march in support of Black Lives Matter in L.A. on June 14. But Christopher Street West, the organization that produces L.A. Pride, will not be involved. After announcing a solidarity protest march last week, L.A. Pride organizers faced backlash for seeking a police permit to hold the event and for not collaborating with Black Lives Matter leadership before announcing it. Los Angeles Times

The L.A. police union spent big in local elections. Some politicians now shun the money. Los Angeles Times

Quarantine hustle: A furloughed chef at a Michelin-starred downtown restaurant is selling takeout Korean “mom food” in the hills of Mt. Washington. L.A. Taco

Two dozen of Los Angeles County Library’s locations reopened for sidewalk service Monday. Library patrons can reserve books, CDs and DVDs online or by phone at these locations. Los Angeles Times

Paramount Network has canceled “Cops” amid nationwide protests against police brutality. The long-running reality series followed officers from various police agencies as they perform their duties. Los Angeles Times

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The last of the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s 169 field offices that were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic will reopen on Thursday to customers who already have appointments, but not all services will be available. Los Angeles Times

Orange County’s chief health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, resigned Monday after several intense weeks defending her countywide mask order. The order has faced scrutiny from residents and elected officials, with that ire at times directly aimed at Quick. Several surrounding counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego, require residents to wear masks in public settings. Los Angeles Times


Three more people have been charged in the San Francisco City Hall corruption case. Two of them are former city officials. Los Angeles Times


For EMTs, there’s no “rule book” for facing a pandemic and protests at once. An added consideration is how EMTs can distinguish themselves from the police at protests and deflect any crowd hostility. Los Angeles Times

SoCalGas ramps up use of Aliso Canyon, site of the worst gas leak in U.S. history: Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’s committed to shutting down Aliso Canyon. But its use has skyrocketed since his election. Los Angeles Times


Yosemite reopens Thursday. Here’s what you need to know before you go. Los Angeles Times

The “Black Lives Matter” message on a Bernal Heights rock keeps getting covered up. “On Monday, artists toiled in the hot sun painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the rock — for the fifth time. That’s because they’ve been painting it since last Wednesday, and every time, somebody visits in the dead of night to cover it in different paint.” San Francisco Chronicle

A poem to start your Wednesday: “A Small Moment” by Cornelius Eady. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: sunny, 91. San Diego: sunny, 82. San Francisco: sunny, 73. San Jose: sunny, 89. Fresno: sunny, 98. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Theo Moreno:

As a small boy, we lived in the foothills close to Pasadena. This was the late ‘50s, so milk was still delivered daily. Hearing the milk truck one day, I called my mom out of the kitchen and grabbed her hand to walk to the front door. I’ve never forgotten the view from our porch that pristine morning — there was Catalina Island, floating majestically in the middle of the morning sky! I later realized it must have been a “Santa Ana” day — the eastern winds — the bane of firefighters and the joy of surfers. The “offshores” which produce very long, clear views of the Southland — as they did that morning. I’ve never forgotten.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.