Public health experts do about-face on social distancing to support protests

By | June 4, 2020

Public health experts who backed strict social distancing polices for months during the pandemic have softened that stance to allow for large protests following the death of George Floyd, leading to bitter accusations of double standards.

On Tuesday, 1,288 healthcare professionals and medical students signed their names to an open letter backing the protests on the grounds that it was ideologically justified. “We continue to support demonstrators who are tackling the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism,” they wrote.

Some of the signees had previously called for stricter social distancing policies and for curtailing personal liberties.

Dr. Adam Tapley, a physician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, said, “Unfortunately, we may need more widespread and stringent #SocialDistancing measures to flatten the [COVID-19] curve,” in a tweet from late March.

In an email to the Washington Examiner, Tapley explained, “I support the demonstrations to end racism, including racist police violence, because of the massive and enduring public health threat represented by racism and racist policies in this country, despite the possible short-term increase in risk it may pose to some people from infection with the coronavirus.” He also noted that at the protest he’s attended in Boston, almost everyone was wearing masks or face coverings.

“Freedom, after all, is a flexible concept, and Americans’ freedoms surely include the opportunity to minimize the collective risk of random viral death,” Graham Mooney, another signee, wrote for the Atlantic in May. Mooney, a historian of public health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, also chided those who ignored social distancing as people who “might be making a statement in defense of personal liberty, but … are also undeniably endangering the freedoms of thousands of others.”

Read More:  Open Enrollment for ACA Health Insurance Ends December 15

Mooney did not respond to the Washington Examiner’s requests for comment.

The open letter has been drawing criticism for double standards. Leon Wolf, the managing editor of the conservative publication the Blaze, tweeted, “The people who told us and scolded us (including public health experts) … there was literally no reason that would justify ignoring … or violating social distancing rules suddenly find that literally no reason means ‘unless it’s a reason that’s societally important.'”

The letter was also unsparing in its view of those who protested the pandemic lockdown: “This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, 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.”

At least one signee scrubbed his Twitter feed of past condemnation of people who failed to observe social distancing. David Eisenman, a professor at the department of community health sciences at UCLA, in a March tweet quoted a New York Times opinion piece that called for “steady enforcement” and “small penalties” for violators of social distancing rules. When asked by the Washington Examiner how to reconcile his March comments with the open letter, Eisenman deleted the tweet and said, “I did not tweet that.” When asked who did tweet it, Eisenman replied, “I don’t know. It’s concerning.”


One signee has even called for some to take precautions while hoping that others did not.

“Since friends keep asking 4 advice: #StayTheFHome if humanly possible,” Ayden Scheim tweeted in mid March.

Scheim is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University who conducts research about transgender people. When Hungary moved to end legal recognition of transgender people in late April, Scheim tweeted, “Is it wrong to hope that all those unmasked jerks get each other sick?”

Scheim did not respond to requests for comment.

Read More:  How do you know if you have a sprained ankle?