Social Distance vs. Social Justice: The balancing act defining a generation

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — It’s a question most Americans weren’t asking at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

How do you balance the urge to protest social injustice at a time when the entire country is being asked to keep socially distant?

The images we are seeing across America of protesters packing streets by the thousands are images that would’ve been unimaginable three months ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down Alabama and other states, leaving normally crowded streets and shopping centers empty. 

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day ignited a nationwide movement. Seemingly overnight, calls for social distance took a backseat to calls for social justice.

RELATED: These are the 4 officers charged in George Floyd’s murder

Some protesters wore masks. Others did not. All stood side by side in the name of justice, the 6-foot social distance guideline the last thing on many people’s minds.

The mass gatherings across the country left many wondering if we’d see a corresponding spike in COVID-19 cases.

“From Mobile County Health Department data, we have not seen an increase in cases due to the protesting,” Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard H. Eichold II said at the June 17 meeting of the county’s Unified Command. “Some of the protesting has not been through the incubation period, so we just have to watch the data and see.”

As the region waits to see if there’s a correlation between the ongoing protests and the number of coronavirus cases, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said it stands to reason there’s a likely connection.

“If we know that you have increased cases in church choirs, people attending funerals, and any kind of mass gathering, even on a smaller scale, there’s to me logic that would tell you that you will have an increase in cases due to the social protesting,” Mayor Stimpson said.

RELATED: Watch George Floyd’s full Houston funeral service

So it’s become a balancing act.

Many people are balancing their urge to stand up for what’s right, at a time when there are rules for how closely you can stand next to someone.

“If people are going to go outside regardless of whether you’re going out for retailing or going out to exercise your civil liberties, please cover your face and maintain 6-foot social distancing,” Dr. Eichold said.

And then there’s the question of whether a surge in COVID-19 cases even matters if it propels the social movement. Some may argue it’s a necessary consequence in order to bring about the long-overdue police policy reforms we’re seeing across the country.

“You’re standing up for people that have been murdered, could be murdered,” said Sabrina Mass, one of the lead voices among the peaceful protesters in Mobile. “So I would say maybe you’re sacrificing your own health to get the message across.”

Mass played a prominent role as tensions flared at a May 31 protest in Mobile. As MPD officers formed a line to block protesters from getting onto I-10 downtown, Mass stood between officers and protesters, a level-headed liaison between the two sides. At the same protest, a woman used a bat to smash the window of a police cruiser. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

RELATED: MPD cruiser window smashed during Mobile protest

“I knew the COVID was there, I knew it was real, but at the time I wanted to get the message across,” Mass said. “I didn’t feel like wearing a mask. With my voice, I couldn’t be heard. I needed to be heard.”

While not wearing a mask goes against recommendations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s a decision fully within an individual’s rights.

“It just stands to reason that if you’re social protesting and you’re not spacing yourself and you’re not using a mask, then everybody around you is vulnerable, and you’re vulnerable yourself,” Mayor Stimpson said.

But the protests highlight a different vulnerability — the deep wounds created by decades of systemic racism.

“The feelings and the hurt and the pain and the stuff in the world is so deep,” Mass said. “You got to balance out what you feel as your own beliefs. I believe the COVID is definitely real, but then again you know dying is real. People are getting murdered out here at the hands of police,” Mass said.

These protests and the pandemic are colliding at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, and how the nation handles the impact of that collision will go a long way in defining a generation.

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