George Floyd

Protesting Police Violence Is Critical. But Why Are the Social Distance Shamers Suddenly So Quiet?

What happened to staying at home to keep grandparents safe no matter what?


The protesters taking to the streets to demand justice for the killing of George Floyd certainly have a righteous cause. They are, however, breaking just about every rule of social distancing. And many of the most committed voices in support of continuing the aggressive, painful measure to contain the spread of coronavirus suddenly have nothing to say about it.

A month ago, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) ended the state's COVID-19 lockdown and allowed gyms, restaurants, nail salons, and other businesses to reopen, many in the mainstream media accused him of wanton disregard for human life. The Atlantic described the state's relaxation of the very strictest social distancing measures as "Georgia's Experiment in Human Sacrifice."

When Florida beaches reopened, it was the same story. CNN highlighted the activism of a local man who had dressed as the grim reaper and was warning sun-bathers that people would die unless they went home. Referencing the stereotype of the Florida man as a reckless and moronic thrill-seeker, The Washington Post wrote that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was essentially "standing astride the alligator cage, hollering at the rest of the country to check out what's about to happen."

Photos and videos of people gathering in parks in New York City, beaches in California, and public places elsewhere, have generated thunderous denunciation on social media for the past few weeks. Shaming people for failing to socially distance is now common practice for health authorities, government officials, amateur social media sleuths, and of course, many journalists in the mainstream press. (There has also been some welcome pushback.)

It is no accident that the term Karen, a derisive nickname for a type of snitch who summons the authorities to intervene in trivial matters, has suddenly become culturally ubiquitous. Karens are calling out social distancing fails on social media. Karens are on cable news scolding the unmasked. Karens are giving press conferences threatening those who violate stay-at-home orders with arrest.

It's hard to imagine how that can continue.

In their formal statements, a lot of public officials are (correctly) endorsing the protesters' concerns about police violence, and many have condemned the street violence that occurred during the protests.

But what we are not seeing is widespread condemnation of the protesters on what might have been the most obvious point of criticism: They are manifestly violating the social distancing orders. Again, if we are to believe the earlier, dire warnings from public health officials about what would happen if lockdowns were relaxed too quickly, people who fail to practice aggressive social distancing will spread the disease and get others killed. By the logic of lockdown supporters, even the protesters who are practicing strict non-violence have a lot of blood on their hands.

And make no mistake, the protests unfolding all over the country are violating quarantine in any number of ways. Remember that many places are still under stay-at-home orders, and people are only supposed to go outside for essential work or allowable recreation in small numbers. On the plus side, some protesters are thankfully wearing masks, and their activities are unfolding outdoors, which are both factors that work to stop the spread of the virus. But the sheer number of people involved, packed tightly together, often engaging in high-spread activities—like yelling—certainly override much of the benefit. Even Denver protesters, whose comparatively restrained demonstration involved gathering in a public place and lying prone on the ground for eight minutes—the amount of time Floyd's alleged killer had a knee on Floyd's neck—shouted "I can't breathe," the entire time.

Holding police accountable is a very important cause. But the logic of the lockdowns was that they were so necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19 that they should override other pressing concerns. Small business owners were forced to shutter, and many will close permanently, because policymakers ordained that slowing the pandemic was the top priority. Daring to reopen was an "experiment in human sacrifice," a dangerous practice akin to riding an alligator while yelling yeehaw. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has fought to prevent churches from reopening to the public, characteristically said the protesters were "rightfully outraged." He did not scold them to go back inside before they get their grandparents killed.

Media and government experts who fail to consistently call out social distancing violations risk giving the impression that their commitment to zealous enforcement of public health measures wasn't as absolute as they claimed. It turns out they are willing to make exceptions for their preferred causes. Perhaps those who previously went overboard on the social distance shaming should admit this was a mistake. The current silence of the Karens is deafening.