Photograph: John Minchillo/AP
Even as all US states continue further phased reopening of businesses and social movement amid the coronavirus pandemic, governors, mayors and public health officials across the US are raising fears of a surge in cases of Covid-19 arising from escalating protests over the death of George Floyd.
Related: Coronavirus live news: US sends Brazil 2m doses of hydroxychloroquine, despite safety fears
Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis a week ago, on Memorial Day, during an arrest by four police officers. The killing focused a fierce light on police brutality towards African Americans, and stoked protest and violence in most major cities.
According to figures from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, the US has seen nearly 1.8m infections and surpassed 105,000 deaths in the Covid-19 pandemic. In a country that does not have universal healthcare, the crisis has disproportionately affected minorities, particularly those who live in crowded urban areas.
Images of demonstrators in close proximity, many without masks, have therefore alarmed leaders – to the point where some are pleading with those on the streets to protest “the right way”, in order to better protect themselves.
On Monday, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, expressed concern about “super spreaders” in the crowds of protesters seen across the state, but especially among throngs in New York City.
New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, also urged protesters to maintain social distancing and wear masks.
“Obviously we don’t want people in close proximity to each other, we don’t want people out there where they might catch this disease or spread this disease,” he said.
Police outside the White House fired teargas at protesters on Monday evening while Donald Trump was holding a press conference inside. Substances such as teargas make people cough, which can spread viruses more easily.
“I’m concerned that we had mass gatherings on our streets when we just lifted a stay-at-home order and what that could mean for spikes in coronavirus cases later,” Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington DC, had said on Sunday.
Related: Fire, pestilence and a country at war with itself: the Trump presidency is over | Robert Reich
“I’m so concerned about it that I’m urging everybody to consider their exposure, if they need to isolate from their family members when they go home and if they need to be tested … because we have worked very hard to blunt the curve.”
Bowser said protests in her city, which has seen violence several days in a row at the White House and other areas, were a mixed bag.
“While I saw some people with masks last night, others didn’t,” she said. “I saw some people social distancing, other people were right on top of each other. So we don’t want to compound this deadly virus and the impact it’s had on our community.
“We’ve been working hard to not have mass gatherings. As a nation, we have to be concerned about rebound.”
Bowser’s message was echoed by Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, and by Keisha Lance-Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, who said she was “extremely concerned” about Covid-19 spreading, and that protests had distracted her from dealing with the pandemic.
On Saturday, Bottoms said at a press conference: “If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a Covid test this week.”
On Sunday, she told CNN’s State of the Union: “I realised that I hadn’t looked at our coronavirus numbers in two days. And that’s frightening, because it’s a pandemic, and people of color are getting hit harder.
“We know what’s already happening in our community with this virus. We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”
According to the Georgia health department, more African Americans have contracted Covid-19 in the state than any other race.
“The question is: how do we do protesting safely?” Dr Ashish Jha, the director of the global health institute at Harvard’s TH Chan school of public health, told CNN. “I think masks are a critical part of it.”
In New York, De Blasio said he supported the public’s right to demonstrate peacefully but added that the protests meant an uncertain future.
“You have all the frustrations about injustice, combined with the frustrations about the injustice within the pandemic, because the pandemic displayed immense disparity combined with the fact that people spent two months cooped up indoors,” he said.
“We don’t know what the summer brings.”
Dr Theodore Long, leading the city’s contact tracing strategy, offered advice.
“We strongly encourage anybody who is out in the protests to wear a mask, practice proper hand hygiene and to the extent possible, socially distance, though we know that’s not always going to be feasible,” he said.