Peter Castro with the city of Madison parks department cleans up State Street after Saturday protests.
Peter Castro with the city of Madison parks department cleans up State Street after Saturday protests. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Weekend protests across Wisconsin mostly peaceful, but COVID-19 concerns abound.

Monday brought fresh protests to Madison and other cities one week after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police following a weekend of mostly peaceful protests in Wisconsin against violent police tactics used on African Americans. 

On Monday afternoon, at least 200 people blocked Madison’s John Nolen Drive, a heavily traveled downtown thoroughfare. It was a change of scenery for protests that had occurred Saturday and Sunday at the State Capitol and adjacent State Street businesses district which were peaceful by day but raucous by night.

Most of the other Wisconsin protests have been peaceful. But the instances of large gatherings have raised concerns from health professionals about the increased risk of coronavirus infections.

In Eau Claire, nearly 1,000 people took part in a march through downtown that culminated with several speakers at the city’s Owen Park. That event was followed by an online discussion of Floyd’s death and reaction to it viewed by more than 500.

“We wanted to let people know we’re not going to stand for what happened to George Floyd, to send the message that kind of violence needs to end,” said Jaylin Carlson, one of the organizers of the protest march in Eau Claire. “But we wanted to make sure we did that in a peaceful way.”

Other cities were home to peaceful protests too. For example, about 200 people attended a rally in Stevens Point on Sunday, and a similar event took place Friday in Wausau. 

People marching at those events spoke against the violence against Floyd and other African Americans but stressed the need to make those views known in a non-violent manner. 

However, vandalism and looting related to rallies continue in some locations, prompting stepped-up police force and other measures intended to quell property damage and unlawful activity.

A rally in Madison Saturday attended by thousands transformed from peaceful to riotous after 75 businesses in the city’s iconic State Street district were damaged by a much smaller group that remained after most of the protesters had left. 

Similarly, in Green Bay on Sunday, buildings were damaged and at least one person was injured after protestors clashed with police. And in Milwaukee late Sunday hundreds of protesters interacted with police dressed in riot gear after a day of peaceful actions.   

In Minneapolis, where the 46-year-old Floyd died May 25 after a police officer knelt on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, standoffs between protesters and police continued. On Sunday more than 150 protestors were arrested after violating a citywide 8 p.m. curfew. They were among thousands of demonstrators who protested downtown Sunday night.

Clashes between police and protesters occurred in other cities across the U.S., in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. 

The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was charged Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He and three other officers present at the scene were fired.  

As protests involving sometimes thousands of people continue, public health officials in Wisconsin said they worry those large gatherings will lead to more cases of COVID-19. The number of cases of the contagious virus has risen significantly in recent weeks since the state Supreme Court ruled on May 13 that the extension of Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order was illegal. 

According to state Department of Health Services statistics, as of Monday there were 18,543 positive cases of the virus in Wisconsin and 595 deaths. Numbers of new cases were low on Sunday’s and Monday’s DHS reports, but there was also a large weekend drop in the number of tests administered.

DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said as more Wisconsin residents come together when businesses and other activities across the state resume operations, the number of COVID-19 cases is likely to climb. Large gatherings where people have prolonged contact are especially likely situations in which the virus is spread, she said. 

Eau Claire County Health Department Director Lieske Giese shares that concern, saying protests that attract large numbers of people have the potential for significant spread COVID-19. She attended the rally Sunday in Eau Claire but remained toward the edge of the gathering, maintaining social distance from others. 

“The risk of disease spread in a large group like this is very real,” Giese said, noting that while many at Sunday’s event donned masks, others did not, and people generally failed to maintain space from each other. 

That risk will be an ongoing concern, Giese said, as protest rallies continue. Another protest event was scheduled to occur Monday night in Eau Claire, and others are likely to happen around the state.