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Making Your Voice Heard—Safely

Campus Experts Offer Tips to Avoid Virus, Other Trouble at Protests

By Annie Krakower

Red, white and blue illustration of protesters

Illustration by Shutterstock

The decision to participate in a mass demonstration doesn’t have to be as simple as “protect your health vs. voice your opinion,” according to University of Maryland experts in public health and the dynamics of street protests.

As a contentious campaign season careens toward Election Day on Nov. 3—amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, a fight for racial justice and an economic downturn—experts are anticipating and cities across the country are bracing for a surge of citizens exercising their freedom of speech, including through protests and mass demonstrations.

With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb across the state and nation, though, the decision to venture out could be a tough one. But it doesn’t have to be as simple as “protect your health vs. voice your opinion,” according to University of Maryland experts in public health and the dynamics of street protests.

“There are steps you can take to both participate in what is fundamentally our political process, important civic action,” said Neil Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at UMD, “but also to do it in a way that reduces harm.”

Sehgal and other campus experts on protests and public health weighed in on how to safely speak out this election season:

Follow the 4 Maryland Guidelines
If the protocols that have been guiding Terps on campus this semester—wear a face covering, wash or sanitize your hands often, stay 6 feet from others and stay home if you’re sick—are applied at demonstrations, participation can be reasonably safe, Sehgal said. He suggested bringing a small bottle of hand sanitizer and an extra mask in case yours gets damaged or someone else needs one, and that groups or households should distance themselves as much as possible from others.

“It’s not a mask or distance, but it’s a mask and distance that keeps you the safest,” he said.

Prepare for Long Days
Protesters should carry individually packaged water and snacks to stay hydrated, said Sehgal and health policy and management doctoral student Jim Huang, who also encourage wearing comfortable, layered clothing for a day filled with movement and possible changing temperatures.

“The biggest physical danger that happens at protests is dehydration,” Huang said.

Such tips also apply to waiting in line to vote in person, said Dr. Sacared Bodison, interim director of the University Health Center. Exercising when standing for an extended period—for example, by doing toe raises or marching in place—is key, she said, and knowing how you’ll vote in advance will help the line move more quickly.

Use the Buddy System
Sociology Professor Dana R. Fisher, who leads groups of students and colleagues in conducting surveys at street protests, recommends being selective about what type of event you choose to attend.

“For students who want to participate in activism, it’s going to be less dense and safer during the day than at night,” she said.

For those who decide they must venture into dicier settings to participate or bear witness to a momentous time in American history, Fisher recommends going with a buddy and making sure you inform friends or family exactly where you plan to go to protest.

Beware of Chemical Irritants
In case the situation escalates and tear gas or other irritants are used, Sehgal and Huang suggest bringing eye protection.

“Goggles are better than safety glasses, and safety glasses are better than nothing,” Sehgal said.

If you normally wear contacts or glasses, opt for the latter, they say, so that if your eyes need to be flushed, you’ll still be able to see. And always flush with water, not milk, since you don’t know who might be allergic to milk and it could be sitting out a long time.

Spread Your Message Sans Shouting
Amid COVID-19, limiting how much you yell or chant can reduce possible transmission of the disease, Sehgal said. Express your opinion in other ways, like through written signs or noisemakers.

“Chanting is like coughing—you’re exhaling tiny droplets that can potentially spread the virus,” he said. “So to the extent that you can be noisy in ways that don’t involve your voice, you should.”

Pay Attention to Consent and Autonomy
During protests, where the situation can quickly change, it’s important to be aware of how your actions impact yourself and others, Huang said. Set your own personal boundaries for the kinds of risks you’re comfortable with, but remember to be respectful of other protesters’ comfort levels as well.

“Don’t foist unwanted medical care on somebody (like by throwing water on their eyes) just because it looks like they might need something that you have,” he said. “Ask first for their permission.”

Make Mental Health a Priority
Protests can be emotionally and physically draining, so it’s important to make a plan for aftercare, Sehgal and Huang said. If demonstrations or unrest are ongoing after the election, the fatigue and mental health toll could be significant.

“Even if nothing bad happens, protests are situations with a lot of high energy, and for a lot of people, that can be a little bit traumatizing,” Huang said. “So prioritizing mental health care for yourself and those around you is really, really essential.”

They recommend calling the Help Center, UMD’s student-run peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline, at 301.314.HELP, or utilizing other campus health resources as needed.

Get Tested
After protesting, Sehgal suggests getting tested within three to five days—and making sure your friends who protested with you get tested, too. Remain isolated while waiting for your test results, especially from those who might be immunocompromised.

“I have been at five or six protests since George Floyd was murdered,” said Fisher, who’s employed health and safety guidelines while continuing her research, “and I get tested for COVID after each one and am proud to say I have not tested positive.”

Only Participate if You’re Comfortable
Even with all these guidelines, if protests or direct action aren’t for you, there are other ways to make your voice heard, Fisher said.

“If you’re not comfortable or don’t feel safe going out in a crowd, you shouldn’t participate that way,” she said. “The other thing you can do is to reach out to your elected representatives and make sure they are aware you are not happy with what is going on, and that you want things to change.”

If on Campus, Remember the University’s Policy
Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas, public information officer for the University of Maryland Police Department, points to UMD’s guidelines for expressive activity for anyone protesting on campus.

“Exposure to all perspectives, including those that may be deemed disagreeable or offensive, can and should be an essential part of the educational experience and academic life on this campus,” the policy states.

Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.