fence around u.s. capitol
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Health experts expected COVID-19 cases to surge following Jan. 6, the day thousands of mostly maskless Trump supporters stormed inside the U.S. Capitol. Some considered it to be a textbook superspreader event. But a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper by researchers at Bentley University and San Diego State University found “no evidence” that the insurrection “substantially increased” community spread in the District

“This may be explained, in part, by risk averting behavior by local residents and the partial District lockdown,” researchers write in their paper, which has not been peer reviewed. Mobility data via SafeGraph shows that residents heeded calls from government officials and community leaders to stay home when Trump supporters came to D.C. The mayor’s order that restricted activities between Dec. 23 and Jan. 22—like banning indoor dining, requiring non-essential businesses to telework, and closing museums—may have also blunted community spread following the Capitol attack.   

Analyzing smartphone and coronavirus data a month after Jan. 6, researchers also found that counties where larger shares of protesters traveled from and reside experienced a “significant increase” in daily cases. “We conclude that the Capitol Riot may have led to non-localized community-level COVID-19 spread,” they write. Counties without indoor dining restrictions saw greater community spread after Jan. 6—a 0.7 to 1.4 percentage point increase in case growth, according to researchers. Their paper suggests that coronavirus restrictions can mitigate the adverse effects of risky gatherings.  

“Importantly, we note that our COVID-19 data do not allow us to specifically measure disease spread among those protesting or among those working in the Capitol Building on the day of the Riot,” researchers write. “Precise and complete contact tracing would be required to document person-to-person spread among those who had contact with rioters.” 

DCist first reported on the working paper. Below is a screenshot that shows counties with large percentages of cell phone pings along the Ellipse, the National Mall, and the Capitol Building the day of the insurrection. The vast majority of pings—75.7 percent—came from outside the D.C. region. Only 2.4 percent came from D.C. residents.

The report acknowledges that public health experts have been wrong when predicting surges following gatherings before. Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, for example, did not lead to a surge in cases as anticipated. But unlike the insurrection, BLM protests were outdoors and demonstrators mostly wore masks. Still, predictions about an insurrection-induced surge from prominent public health experts like Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, never materialized in D.C., researchers noted. Experts aren’t always wrong—there was evidence of spread following the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, the researchers noted. What’s clear is, the coronavirus pandemic is especially hard to predict.    

Law enforcement did report COVID-19 cases after responding to the Capitol attack. The chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, Robert Contee, told NBC Washington that some platoons were hit harder than others. MPD reported a significant number of cases in the two weeks following the insurrection. Capitol Police officers and National Guard troops also reported dozens of cases.   

DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said the peak in cases that the District saw in mid-January was related to the holidays. “People should be mindful that many individuals who came here do not reside here,” she said when asked whether the insurrection contributed at all to the peak.      

While the insurrection may not have led to a citywide surge in COVID-19 cases, the District was still negatively impacted. Critical services that locals rely on were interrupted on Jan. 6, along with Inauguration Day out of fear of another attack. The Capitol remains fenced off. And two officers who responded to the riot died by suicide. However, D.C. residents had no say in the impeachment of former President Donald Trump, who was on trial for inciting the insurrection. The senate, where D.C. has no representation, acquitted Trump on Saturday.

— Amanda Michelle Gomez, (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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