As protests continue across the country, 'social distancing' rhetoric diminishes

'I think we were sold a false bill of goods.'

Updated: June 6, 2020 - 2:13pm

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After several months of implementing aggressive coronavirus mitigation tactics across the U.S., numerous public health officials and state politicians appear to be easing their forceful rhetoric on social distancing, offering both tacit and open support to huge groups of crowded activists following the death of George Floyd. 

This comes as many of those same leaders and media personalities were, just weeks ago, claiming that such behavior would result in widespread sickness and possible deaths. 

Social distancing has been a ubiquitous phenomenon in the U.S. since mid-March, when state governors began shutting down large portions of their economies and ordering residents to remain apart from each other. Many governors placed strict limits on how many people could gather in one place at a time.

Attendance limits were also placed on sensitive gatherings such as funerals; some places, such as Washington State, even banned funerals altogether for a time. 

However, as the number of COVID-19 cases have been reduced, states in recent weeks have begun easing many of those restrictions, although in many localities numerous forms of social distancing rules, such as capacity caps in restaurants and gathering limits, are still in place. Even when local governments have instituted mandates for face coverings — as has happened in Virginia, California, New Mexico, and elsewhere in various forms — they have still stressed the need to follow social distancing requirements.

Yet the emergence of a rolling series of protests across the country — demonstrations, sometimes violent, that have been spurred by the death of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of several police officers — has led to a quiet but marked shift in the way authorities are talking about pandemic mitigation. In many cases, support for the huge crowds of protesters has taken a front seat, with social-distancing concerns being less forcefully advocated, at least for now. 

'It's terrifying that the government can choose what is worthy and what is not'

The vitriol between those who have embraced social distancing and those who are pushing to lift restrictions may best exemplified in a Twitter controversy about a month ago, when conservative writer Bethany Mandel briefly found herself the topic of an intense pro-social distance backlash. 

Mandel — who earlier in the year was in favor of a brief lockdown to help stop the spread of coronavirus — has been an outspoken critic of the extended mitigation measures of the past few months. In a Twitter thread at the beginning of May, she wrote critically of what she said was a policy of "indefinite lockdowns and economic destruction," asserting that the question of reopening the economy was one of "survival."

"You can call me a Grandma killer," she said. "I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable."

Backlash to that remark was fierce. "Grandma killer" trended on Twitter for a time, and she received over 15,000 replies to her remarks, seemingly the vast majority of them negative.

Former Bill Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart called her "a grandma killer yes ... [and] a nurse killer, a doctor killer, a cop killer, a grocery clerk killer, a student killer, a 5 year old killer, a bus driver killer, a father killer who just had a child killer, a family killer."

Liberal writer Kurt Eichenwalled called her a "stupid sociopath" and accused her of potentially killing people simply so she could "go to the zoo." Former Joe Walsh campaign manager Lucy Caldwell publicly insinuated that the Mandels were sexually abusing their children. Thousands of others heaped scorn and derision on her.

Mandel told Just the News this week that the entire incident was "a few days of unpleasantness; folks bombing my personal social media and being vile, posting the addresses of my family." She said at one point an Internet commenter said they had reported her and her husband to Child Protective Services. 

She said the ongoing George Floyd protests are likely safe. "I think we're seeing with a lot of public gatherings (lockdown protests, beach reopenings, the Memorial Day party in the Ozarks) that casual contact, especially outdoors, isn't particularly dangerous," she said. 

"I think we were sold a false bill of goods on how contagious this virus is," said Mandel. "We can be sure that it can spread in indoor environments with prolonged exposure (nursing homes, subway, hospitals, homes), but out and about it doesn't appear to be particularly dangerous. If it were, we'd have seen grocery stores as a Ground Zero for contagion."

She was asked if any of her antagonists had come back to apologize in light of the new protests. "Maybe half a dozen random people on Twitter," she said. "But they claim that the cause of these protests is just too vitally important to stay home."

"Somehow keeping people in business is not of vital importance," she said. "It's terrifying that the government can choose what is worthy and what is not."

Some of Mandel's critics, meanwhile, appear not to have the same issues with the recent protests as they did with her desire to reopen the country. Lockhart this week suggested "go[ing] after some of the right wing hate groups" rather than rounding up violent antifa protesters. Eichenwald said the protesters are turning out "to demand racial justice." Caldwell, meanwhile, has favorably retweeted video of crowded protesting.

'You are putting all of us at risk'

Commentators are not the only ones who appear to have flip-flopped to certain extents on social distancing dictates. Many of the state officials who have been imposing those rules on Americans for months have begun quietly downplaying them as protests have arisen in their cities and states.

Among them is Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who has multiple times in recent months referred to his fellow Virginians as "selfish" and "wrong" when they've gathered together, in some cases to protest his lockdown policies. In April, he said that protesters were "putting our health care providers, those that are in the trenches trying to save lives every day, they're putting them at risk." 

"You are putting all of us at risk," he said of large gatherings elsewhere.

He has been much friendlier to the protests that have arisen in the wake of Floyd's death, releasing several sympathetic statements and telling them: "I stand by you." Earlier this week he urged them to practice social distancing while protesting, but he evinced none of the anger and disappointment that he had with earlier groups of Virginians, nor did he scold them that they were risking the lives of healthcare workers by gathering in such large groups. 

The governor as part of his "Phase Two" reopening guidelines is imposing a 50-person limit on "social gatherings" in the state, though protests in the state capitol of Richmond have been much larger than that.

In some cases, advocates of social distancing have been more consistent. Though he was originally supportive of the protests sweeping the nation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week was more critical. "We just spent 93 days limiting behavior, closing down, no school, no business, thousands of small businesses destroyed," he said on Monday. “And now? Mass gatherings, with thousands of people, in close proximity? What sense does that make?”

Others have remained quieter. California Gov. Gavin Newsom in April urged protesters of his lockdown policies to "practice social distancing" while doing so, but he has not yet made similar recommendations to current protesters, even as footage has shown huge crowds in his state.

Newsom earlier this year closed down some beaches in California for a period of time out of concerns that crowded beachfronts could result in widespread infections.  

In North Carolina, meanwhile, Gov. Roy Cooper this week informed the Republican Party that it would have to downsize its nominating convention in that state if it wanted to host the event there, telling the GOP it would need to plan for "fewer people, social distancing and face coverings." Shortly after that announcement, Cooper joined a crowded protest outside the executive mansion, walking among a crowd of both masked and unmasked people, at one point even removing his own mask. 

In New Jersey this week, Gov. Phil Murphy drew a sharp distinction between protests in favor of Black Lives Matter, which he said he supports, and protests in favor of ending the lockdown, which he doesn't think should happen. 

"[I]t’s one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening," he said, "and it’s another to come out in peaceful protest, overwhelmingly, about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes."

And in New York City this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said a store owner who wants to re-open, or a religious devotee who wants to attend a church service, is "not the same question" as "an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seated in 400 years of American racism." 

Socially distance 'where possible'

Though authorities have in some cases continued to stress social distancing while protesting, the shift in tone of the national discourse has been marked over the past week or so, suggesting that concerns over the spread of coronavirus have become less pointed as the protests have continued. 

That change was perhaps best exemplified by an open letter signed by nearly 1,300 "public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders." It states that the signees "do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission." Rather, they "support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States." 

The letter still advises social distancing measures for those joining the protests, but it is couched in markedly qualified language, urging "distance of at least 6 feet between protesters, where possible," and conceding that mitigation efforts "may not always be" possible. 

Most notably, the signatories also stipulate that their advocacy of one type of protest should not be confused for an advocacy of all protests. "This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings," they write, "particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives."

What remains to be seen is if the protests do indeed result in a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths where they have occurred. Weeks ago, that would have been a common prediction to hear, at least among those opposed to re-opening measures. Today many of those same individuals seem reluctant to make those estimates now, a suggestion that politics may be as much at play here as concerns over public health. 

In some cases the differences have been stark. At the end of April, Atlantic writer Amanda Mull claimed that Georgia's re-opening was an "experiment in human sacrifice." Almost exactly a month later, a few days after protests began following George Floyd's death, she wrote on Twitter: "The people risking their lives and health in Minneapolis so George Floyd’s life and death can’t be hand-waved away by those in power are heroes." 

Sometimes the amount of time between the apparent flip-flop has been even less than that. On June 5, PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor wrote with incredulity that the White House had "made reporters, including myself, sit *closer together* at the president's remarks in the Rose Garden today, and *violate the federal government's social distancing policy for the pandemic* because they thought the seating arrangement 'looks better'." 

Two days earlier, observing footage of a massively crowded protest in Paris in honor of George Floyd, Alcindor wrote: "...wow." 

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