As coronavirus cases climb past 6,700, Orange County officials express concern over large gatherings as protests continue

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Orange County officials on Thursday said they respect residents’ right to protest but are concerned about the spread of the coronavirus at the large demonstrations to decry the in-custody death of George Floyd.

Another seven COVID-19 deaths and 107 new cases were reported Thursday, bringing the countywide case total up to 6,783 and the death toll from the respiratory illness to 165. The county estimates that about 42% of those who tested positive have since recovered.

“We’re always concerned when we see large group gatherings,” County Executive Officer Frank Kim said. “And I think it’s a real balance between preserving the rights of individuals to express their first amendment rights, as well as a desire and a request from the county that individuals do their best to maintain their 6 feet of social distancing and use all precautions that are necessary in order to protect and preserve their own personal health, as well as those of other protesters and their family members.”

But he added that it’s not realistic to expect that there be handwashing stations available in all areas or that protesters would be able to keep at least 6 feet apart.

“I think that is a concern that, certainly, if there are individuals that are COVID positive in those environments, that there is risk to the other members that are protesting,” he said.

Orange County was also the site of several large protests against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. One protest in Huntington Beach amassed more than 2,500 people.

Over the past week, the county saw hundreds take to the streets to decry the in-custody death of Floyd, as well as longstanding issues of police brutality against black people.

Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana and Newport Beach all saw demonstrations in recent days — most largely peaceful though officials did report incidents of vandalism and violence.

In Huntington Beach Sunday, counter-protestors clashed with protestors and some used mace or pepper spray and brandished weapons, according police. Officers also used a “chemical agent” to disperse a crowd that spilled onto the Pacific Coast Highway, eventually making several arrests.

Health experts across the state have continued to sound the alarm on large gatherings and in particular warned that the use of tear gas on protestors is likely to contribute to the spread of the respiratory illness. Statewide, confirmed coronavirus infections approached 120,000 Thursday, according to a Los Angeles Times tally.

In Newport Beach Wednesday, a vehicle drove through a crowd of protesters who were blocking an intersection. The driver, who officials say isn’t a resident in the county, was arrested.

“There is no justification for driving through a crowd and potentially injuring or killing people,” O.C. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel said. “While I’m relieved no one was hurt, we cannot have this happen again.”

“There are protests planned in Orange County throughout the week,” Steel said. “I implore those for partaking in protest to do so in a peaceful manner.”

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