Christina Coleman reports from Los Angeles.
Several big-city mayors and top officials are acknowledging that weeks of anti-police protests and riots may have contributed to surging coronavirus rates, weeks after Democrats and even some epidemiologists openly encouraged Black Lives Matter allies to demonstrate in the streets.
In public statements and interviews with Fox News this weekend, officials in Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami-Dade County, Fla., have indicated that some link between protests and new cases was at least possible. Still, many officials declined to comment when contacted by Fox News this weekend, and others – including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's office – disputed that the protests had caused any issue.
"Based on our health indicators, which measure hospital admissions, number of people in ICU and percentage of New Yorkers testing positive, we have seen no indication of an uptick in cases," Avery Cohen, de Blasio's deputy press secretary, told Fox News.
WNBC reported on July 4 that "over the course of a week, New York's daily death toll has stayed constant, but its percentage of positive coronavirus cases rose four days straight." New York City, though, has seen cases steadily decreasing over the last few months, while Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami have been experiencing surges.
In this June 6, 2020, file photo, demonstrators protest at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the group behind the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, has established a more than $12 million fund to aid organizations fighting institutional racism in the wake of the George Floyd protests. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Responding to that report, Cohen asserted that the number of New Yorkers testing positive "remains at a steady 2 percent, far below the nationwide average," and that, "at this time, we do not believe there has been a resurgence in cases related to the protests, which reached their peak over a month ago."
Cohen's public Twitter feed explicitly praised the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged mass protests. One June 28 post retweeted by Cohen read: "Are you ready to flood the streets to fight for Black lives and against police brutality and reclaim our roots of pride? Join us today at 1 PM at FOLEY SQUARE."
New York officials were previously less tolerant of mass gatherings — at least, for certain religious groups. In April, de Blasio told the Jewish community that "the time for warnings has passed" after he said a funeral gathering had violated social distancing guidelines.
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New York's current position differs markedly from assessments by officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Last Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledged that public protests likely were causing a coronavirus spike, just two days after claiming there wasn't "any conclusive evidence" showing a connection between the two. De Blasio, like Garcetti, has defended demonstrators, saying they were participating in a "historical moment."
"I talked again with Dr. Ferrer about that this morning," Garcetti said, referencing Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County public-health director. "She does think some of the spread did come from our protests," he added. "It’s not the act of protesting — that’s a great and American thing to do no matter what your opinion is… but protesting without maintaining physical distancing, without wearing your mask, without having sanitizer – we just have to be smart. Whether you’re at a protest or at your home, whether in your workplace or whether you’re out shopping, these rules don’t change."
Cohen responded, "Los Angeles is facing a resurgence; we have seen no such equivalent in New York City."
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New York’s governor, however, Andrew Cuomo, in June expressed concerns about the confluence of protests and the virus. "If you were at a protest, go get a test, please."
But last month, after New York City hired 1,000 workers to conduct contact tracing to monitor the spread of coronavirus, de Blasio's office said they would not be explicitly asking people if they participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. De Blasio's spokeswoman, at the time, said “no person will be asked proactively if they attended a protest.”
Still, Cohen said this weekend that contact tracers were "not barred from asking positive cases about attending protests," and that "when identifying their close contacts, patients are asked if they attended any large gatherings or events."
"We remain overcautious," Cohen said. "As we continue our phases reopening, we will continue to monitor our indicators closely for any potential resurgence."
By contrast, a spokesperson for Carlos A. Giménez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, told Fox News on Sunday the protests were a "contributing factor" to the local coronavirus spike.
Giménez "meets several times a week with his team of medical experts," the spokesperson, Patty Abril, responded in an email. "Those experts have told him that, based on information in our local emergency rooms, the protests were a contributing factor, along with our community letting its guard down and not social distancing or wearing masks, as mandated. Graduation parties, house parties and restaurants illegally turning into clubs after midnight all contributed to the spike."
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The mayor had announced a curfew last week after it was determined that roughly 2,300 of Florida's 10,109 new coronavirus infections originated in Miami-Dade.
“This curfew is meant to stop people from venturing out and hanging out with friends in groups, which has shown to be spreading the virus rapidly,” Giménez said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's office directed Fox News to city health official James Apa, who downplayed the role of protests while still acknowledging they may have played a role in some new cases.
People march to protest during a solidarity rally for the death of George Floyd in Tokyo Sunday, June 14, 2020. Holding handmade signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” several hundred people marched peacefully at a Tokyo park Sunday, highlighting the outrage over the death of Floyd even in a country often perceived as homogeneous and untouched by racial issues. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
"No single exposure site has been the primary driver for our increase in cases," Apa said. "Top contributors include infections from other people in households, essential workers being exposed on the job and infections within long term care facilities. From what we can tell, protests were not a major factor."
Pressed on whether protests could have contributed to the coronavirus upswing, Apa indicated that any impact was probably marginal.
"A small percentage of the total number of cases reported going to a protest, which may or may not mean they acquired it there," he said. "Protests are not driving our upsurge in cases."
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The mayors of Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Oakland, San Francisco, Houston and New Orleans did not return Fox News' requests for comment concerning the potential that protests might have led to an increase in coronavirus cases.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who did not return Fox News' request for comment as to whether he sees a connection between protests and the coronavirus, had previously warned that in-person worship services would be a "public-health disaster," disregarding constituents' concerns that he was violating their First Amendment rights. In May, his administration began distributing masks to rioters, even though public gatherings of 10 or more were still ostensibly banned. Frey also allowed a police station to burn, saying it was necessary to protect police and rioters.
The mayor of Washington D.C., Muriel Bowser, who also did not return Fox News' inquiries on Sunday, vowed $5,000 fines or 90 days in jail for anyone violating stay-at-home orders. Weeks later, though, Bowser defended the protests: "We are grieving hundreds of years of institutional racism. … People are tired, sad, angry and desperate for change."
The mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has been one of the few politicians to attempt to keep up her coronavirus admonitions. "If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week," she told CNN at the height of the protests. "There is still a pandemic in America that’s killing Black and Brown people at higher numbers."
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The mayor didn't answer Fox News' questions on the spread of the coronavirus, but she did deliver emotional remarks on Sunday after an 8-year-old girl was shot and killed on the Fourth of July near a Wendy's that became a flashpoint of recent anti-police protests in the city.
“Enough is enough," Bottoms said. "Enough is enough. We have talked about this movement that's happening across America and this moment in time when we have the ears and the interests of people across this country and across this globe who are saying they want to see change. But the difference in this moment in time with the civil rights movement — the civil rights movement, there was a defined, common enemy. We're fighting the enemy within when we are shooting each other up on our streets."
She continued: "You shot and killed a baby. And there wasn’t just one shooter; there were at least two shooters. An eight-year-old baby. If you want people to take us seriously, and you don't want us to lose this movement, then we can't lose each other."
"It has to stop," Bottoms added, according to FOX 5 Atlanta. "You can't blame this on police officers. It's about people who shot a baby in a car. We're doing each other more harm than any officer on this force."
An Atlanta police officer currently faces a potential death penalty sentence for killing a black man who attempted to shoot the officer with his own taser during a DUI stop; that officer's stepmother later spoke to Fox News about why she was fired from her job as well.
Fox News' Nick Givas contributed to this report.