During a July 3 appearance on PBS NewsHour, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez blamed the county’s recent flare-up in COVID-19 cases on the Black Lives Matter protesters who took to the streets in the weeks prior.
The Republican mayor and congressional candidate, who allowed many Miami-Dade businesses to reopen in May, said that despite the fact that the county had imposed a mask order, many young people had gathered without facemasks at a number of protests.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that, about two weeks after these demonstrations started, we started seeing these spikes,” Gimenez told reporter Judy Woodruff. “That probably was the main cause of why this virus went up.”
So far, experts say, Gimenez’s claim — which was disseminated by conservative sites including The Daily Wire and Breitbart News — isn’t backed up by the data. A paper released in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no proof that the recent civil uprisings across the nation caused the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We find no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than two and a half weeks following protest onset,” the researchers write. “We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.”
Gimenez’s office didn’t respond to New Times’ requests for comment, including a request that he cite evidence to back his claim.
The paper, which used anonymous cell-phone tracking data of nearly 45 million devices plus local CDC data on new virus cases across more than 300 U.S. cities, is the first to track COVID-19 cases across multiple cities since the protests began. Data was collected from May 25 — the day George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police and sparked nationwide demonstrations — to June 20.
The researchers found that the cities where protests were held actually saw an increase in people practicing social distancing compared to cities where demonstrations did not take place. They noted that more people staying in their homes during the protests might account for the bump in social distancing.
On the other hand, the researchers point out that because most protesters were younger people who might experience less-severe symptoms and thus not get tested, those cases “won’t show up in the official COVID-19 numbers.”
Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami, says that while she’s not directly studying the impacts of the protests on COVID-19 trends, she has found no evidence to support Gimenez’s claim.
“I think it’s a disingenuous statement to focus on the Black Lives Matter protests as a major driver of this,” she says. “What we can see — consistent with data that we see nationally — is that these spikes are consistent with reopening and conditions under which we reopen.”
Bailey notes that the protests mostly took place outdoors in large areas, and research continues to show that spending time outdoors is far safer than staying indoors. She also says most protesters have been seen wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
“If you think about a large gathering or march where people are moving and air is moving, and you compare that to people going back to an office building, a retail store, something like that, the indoor environment is going to be a higher risk,” she says.
In a statement released Monday, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, now the political director for New Florida Majority, demanded an apology from Gimenez to the countless Black and brown Floridians insulted by his claim, which he called “racist, plain and simple.”
“Everyone knows that we’re having a surge because Florida never properly shut down in the first place,” Bullard said. “Time and time again, state and local leaders decided to ignore the advice of scientists and experts and instead blindly followed the baseless claims from the Trump administration.”
If anyone is to blame, Bullard added, it is Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has vowed to keep Florida up and running despite the ongoing increase in virus cases. Bullard also pointed out that Gimenez chose to align with DeSantis in reopening Miami-Dade restaurants, beaches, and bars sooner than experts recommended.
“This is just another example of why we must continue to say Black Lives Matter,” Bullard said. “Because in the same way that police officers kill us and corporations abuse us, politicians are quick to blame us for almost anything, including a global pandemic.”