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Fewer than 3 percent of protesters who sought tests were positive for coronavirus, Baker says

People lifted up their hands to signal that they can hear the speaker during a march organized by the Coalition of Black Youth on June 10. The demonstrators marched from Nubian Square to City Hall to urge Boston City Council to reallocate Boston police funding to youth jobs programs like SuccessLink, violence prevention, and to hire additional mental health counselors in Boston Public Schools.
People lifted up their hands to signal that they can hear the speaker during a march organized by the Coalition of Black Youth on June 10. The demonstrators marched from Nubian Square to City Hall to urge Boston City Council to reallocate Boston police funding to youth jobs programs like SuccessLink, violence prevention, and to hire additional mental health counselors in Boston Public Schools.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Fewer than 3 percent of the thousands of demonstrators who visited a series of free state testing sites last week tested positive for the novel coronavirus, offering what officials called a hopeful sign that the waves of protests against police brutality aren’t feeding a new spike in the virus across Massachusetts.

The results, disclosed Tuesday by Governor Charlie Baker, sprung from 17,617 tests over roughly two days, and marked the largest testing effort in Massachusetts aimed specifically at those who participated in protests or demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

Baker said 2.5 percent of the tests were positive, or roughly 440 people — a share that he called consistent with statewide positive test rates. Since June 19, the seven-day average for positive tests has hovered at or below 2 percent, according to state data, a stark drop from mid-April when roughly one-third of tests were coming back positive.

But Baker said the number of positive tests is “quite low” given the frequency and size of some events. State officials have said there have been hundreds of demonstrations in recent weeks featuring at least 100 people, and many across Boston and beyond have drawn thousands.

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The results, Baker said Tuesday, are a “big indicator about how important it is for people to follow the guidance and the rules.”

“The vast majority of the folks who participated in those demonstrations were wearing masks or face coverings of one kind or another,” the Republican governor said. “In many cases, they were moving, which I think made a big difference. And of course, they all took place outside, which we all agree is a far safer environment than indoors.”

Spurred by the death of Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer, the demonstrations have broadly condemned police brutality and systemic racism, and have fed a burgeoning national reckoning on racial justice.

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But after many residents spent months embracing unforeseen levels of isolation to slow the spread of COVID-19, public health experts questioned whether the swell of large gatherings could reignite a new surge in cases, all while businesses and restaurants began reopening their doors.

Thus far, confirmed and probable cases have only continued to slide. The state reported 229 new cases Tuesday, pushing Massachusetts’s total to 107,439, as well as 16 new deaths. The state’s death toll now sits at 7,890, a number that trails only New York and New Jersey in statewide fatalities.

And similar to Massachusetts, other cities and states have found relatively low numbers of protesters turning up positive for the virus.

In Minnesota, where officials have set up four community testing sites, 1.5 percent of the tests conducted last week of those involved in demonstrations were positive, according to state health officials. In Seattle, fewer than 1 percent of thousands of people who attended protests had positive tests earlier this month, officials said.

While encouraging signs, public health experts warn it could still take time to show whether the demonstrations have had an impact. Most of those marching in Massachusetts and beyond are younger, and may not suffer from the typical symptoms that would otherwise drive them to be tested. Large-scale events also continue to spring up, with hundreds of people marching through Boston as recently as Monday.

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The Baker administration did not respond to requests for other data Tuesday, including a breakdown of data across the 50-plus testing sites.

“Just because someone was at the protest, it doesn’t guarantee that they were infected at the protest,” said Dr. Helen Jenkins, an assistant professor of biostatistics at Boston University. “What you would need to know is hard to figure out: How many of those people would have been infected with COVID regardless if they went to a protest or not?”

Baker revealed the testing data at a sometimes-combative news conference in Mattapan, where community members challenged the governor on his COVID response and a police accountability bill he proposed that included providing officers bonuses of up to $5,000 for taking extra “advanced” training.

Baker also said that the minority-owned Primary Corp. will develop the final parcel of land on the old Boston State Hospital site there, offering affordable and senior housing, shuttle service to the MBTA, and day care, among other amenities.

Primary Corp., in collaboration with Toll Brothers, intends to develop 367 residential units on the 10-acre parcel, in a plan state Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, has pushed to cater to residents already living in the predominantly Black neighborhood.

“We did not develop a neighborhood for somebody else to move here,” Holmes said.

But shortly after, Brother Lo with the group Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition told Baker he was “insulted” after his office did not respond to an April letter from the coalition requesting a meeting. “You mean to tell me, from April to now, you didn’t have 15 minutes to meet with us?” he said, adding that his frustration was compounded by the tragedy of his mother-in-law dying of COVID-19.

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His wife, Priscilla Flint-Banks, said her mother died at the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center two weeks after staff told her it had no COVID cases.

Baker apologized, saying he wasn’t aware of the meeting request. “We’ll set it up,” he said.

Baker, asked about the proposed incentives for police, then faced repeated criticism from a woman who identified herself as Monica Rey and held a sign that said “Charlie Baker 3rd Degree Murderer.”

Activists calling for officials to slice police budgets have derided the proposal, which Baker included in broader legislation to create a certification system for Massachusetts police officers, who could then lose their license for certain misconduct.

“If you want people to up their game, if you want people to perform at a higher level, if you want people to do a better job in serving the communities . . . it’s not unusual to create a modest incentive for them to do that,” Baker said.

Rey cut in. “$5,000 is not a modest incentive for most people in this community,” she said.

Holmes, who was among the lawmakers who collaborated with Baker on his bill, urged Rey not to derail the news conference, saying, “Your issue, whatever it is with Charlie, isn’t mine.”

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“I’m not going to get lost in all this other stuff that you guys are getting lost in,” Holmes said of the debate over bonuses. “I want a decertification bill signed, period.”

Martin Finucane and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Coronavirus numbers among protesters low
Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that 2.5 percent of people who took part in recent protests have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Photo: Chris Van Buskirk/Pool, Video: Handout)

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.