Capitol Riot Didn't Drive Up COVID-19 Cases In D.C., Data Suggests D.C. residents avoided downtown the day of the riot, leading to a muted public health impact on the District, a new working paper shows.
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Capitol Riot Didn't Drive Up COVID-19 Cases In D.C., Data Suggests

Attendees of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol brought COVID-19 home with them, a new working paper shows. Daniella Cheslow/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/WAMU/DCist

After hoards of unmasked Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building last month, the country's top health official warned the riots could lead to a fresh wave of COVID-19 cases. That didn't happen — at least not in D.C., according to a new working paper from economists at San Diego State and Bentley universities.

But other parts of the country weren't so lucky.

The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, estimates the impact of the Capitol riot on public health using cell phone data. The researchers find no evidence that the Jan. 6 riot "substantially increased" COVID-19 spread in D.C. over the next month, likely because D.C. residents avoided the protests that led to the insurrection.

But the rioters' home counties "experienced a significant increase in the rate of daily cumulative COVID-19 case growth," the economists say, leading the report to conclude that the riots "may have contributed to non-localized COVID-19 spread."

In an interview with McClatchy two days after the violence, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, said maskless rioters at the Capitol building would be "in cars and trains and planes going home all across the country," leading to "public health consequences."

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Those consequences emerged in places like Harris County, Texas, and Wake County, North Carolina — jurisdictions that saw a large number of their residents in downtown D.C. on Jan. 6, the paper says. Counties that didn't have any restrictions on indoor dining saw an even higher rate of spread after the riots, with case growth between 0.7 to 1.4 percentage points.

Public health experts haven't always accurately predicted the public health impact of large gatherings during the pandemic, including the Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. last summer and former President Donald Trump's May 2020 campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the paper points out. Contrary to health officials' warnings, those events didn't lead to big spikes in cases because other factors interfered, the researchers write.

"Offsetting risk avoidance behaviors," such as mask-wearing at the Black Lives Matter protests and temperature checks at the Tulsa rally, curbed a wave of new community-level cases, the paper says. But the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota did turn into a super-spreader event, because many Sturgis residents participated in the rally and local officials didn't put tight restrictions in place.

Neither of these conditions existed in D.C. during the Jan. 6 riot, the researchers say. While at least 38 U.S. Capitol Police officers and 150 National Guard members tested positive for COVID-19 after the riot, many local residents stayed home at the urging of elected officials. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser kept dining rooms closed and implemented a curfew after the demonstration turned violent. Then D.C. residents just laid low for a while, the paper says, "consistent with 'lockdown conditions' in many quarters of the District in the period leading up to the inauguration of President Biden."

The findings suggest that local restrictions play an important role in mitigating COVID-19 spread around large public gatherings. More than 40% of D.C. residents stayed home full-time between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7, cell phone data show. On the day of the riots, about 22% of cell phone pings captured downtown came from residents of Maryland and Virginia.

The vast majority — about 76% — came from other states. Only 2.4% of cell phone pings downtown that day came from D.C. residents, the report says.

D.C. recorded an anomalously high spike in COVID-19 cases on Jan. 11. Since then, daily case rates have continued to decline. As of Feb 13, D.C. had a seven-day average of 18 cases for every 100,000 residents, with a total of 39,000 cases since the pandemic began.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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