Why protests didn't get same response as worship gathering, rodeo, more amid COVID-19

Alayna Shulman Redding Record SearchlightPublished 11:00 AM EDT Aug 2, 2020Since the coronavirus pandemic star

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Since the coronavirus pandemic started, the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency has called out several high-profile gatherings, including a worship service at the Sundial Bridge, a rodeo in Cottonwood and the ongoing crowds at WaterWorks Park before it agreed to close for the season. 

But some community members have cried double standard at the relative silence from the county over protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

In reality, the county says it's not so simple. 

For one thing, Health and Human Services Agency Director Donnell Ewert said more people at the protests were wearing masks than at the rodeo and worship gathering. WaterWorks Park, on the other hand, said on its website that masks were required, but the county complained there still were too many people there uncovered.

But even bigger, Ewert said there are disturbing implications when a government agency shames people for protesting — against the government. 

"Protests, by their very nature, are protests against the government," he said. "And it does not seem appropriate for the government to condemn a protest against the government. People have a right to air their grievance against the government."

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And while the county didn't publicly call out protesters the way they did with the other gatherings, they still expressed concern the crowds could have consequences. 

Experts have speculated that a surge in cases could come after so many people were close together, especially with chanting at the nationwide protests that had potential to push the virus out from people's lungs. 

Locally, health officials have said they'll never know whether gatherings like the rodeo and the protests led to a surge in cases, but there were lingering questions of the same nature. 

“I was thinking to myself that if there were any positives in that group, there is going to be a bloom (of COVID-19 cases),” Shasta Community Health Center Chief Executive Officer Dean Germano said of some unmasked people at the Redding protests, which he said he attended wearing a mask.

New national data shed possible light on the relationship between gatherings — no matter the reason — and COVID-19.

"Based off the data alone, it doesn’t really matter what you’re gathering for," said Sean Lansing, director of client strategy at Top Data, which makes reports based on data analysis. "If people are gathering and coming into contact more, cases are rising."

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The company used cell-phone data to gauge how many people the average person came in contact with, then compared that to their area's confirmed COVID-19 cases over time. 

Those findings are consistent across the nation — including in Shasta County, Lansing said, even though the local numbers are a little more erratic. 

"You largely see the same correlation" in Shasta County, he said.

Still, Ewert said the county's response also just came down to the conditions at the individual gatherings. 

"Worship services of any size are allowed outside if there’s social distancing, and we acknowledged that in the press release; we took issue with the lack of social distancing, the restricted venue which didn't allow people to social-distance and the lack of face masks," he said of the Sundial gathering. 

And local officials did urge people who attended the protests to get tested and stay away from vulnerable people for two weeks.

"We know that gatherings are risky," Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Ramstrom said when asked about the protests Wednesday.

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Shasta County's confirmed virus caseload increased by nearly tenfold since the end of May, when it had only 39 cases. There were 360 confirmed as of Thursday. 

It can be hard to pinpoint whether a specific event caused an uptick because people often don't get tested right away or might have a delay getting their results back, but Lansing said, in general, crowds and cases go together. 

"I think, without a doubt, every time there's an increase in person-to-person interaction, there's an increase in confirmed COVID cases as well," he said. "They really kind of mirror each other."

Alayna Shulman covers a little bit of everything for the Record Searchlight. In particular, she loves writing about the issues of this community through long-form storytelling. Her work often centers on local crime, features and politics, and has won awards for best writing, best business coverage and best investigative reporting in the California News Publishers Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Follow her on Twitter (@ashulman_RS), call her at 530-225-8372 and, to support her work, please subscribe. 

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