When we identify tipping points in retrospect we are often highlighting symbolic events. These may not have actually been big in themselves, but they seem to us telling. I think that is true here. Though I am calling the statement by a thousand medical professionals a big deal, had it not happened I don't think things would be that different. A dozen or a hundred smaller things would have had to happen or not happen to change our national trajectory about covid beliefs. Thus, if you find some other incident around the same time more important, I won't fuss. This one was highly representative and symbolic, allowing us to identify threads that would become whole cloth and then garments down the road.
We were greatly shut down in early 2020. Liberals were just switching from calling Trump a racist xenophobe for shutting down the border and starting to listen to the medical people - largely drawn from their own ranks with credentials from places they liked - saying "No, this is serious. Buckle in." Everyone was nervously and sullenly accepting it, hoping it would be over soon. There was still much we didn't know. Or most of us didn't. There were voices even then saying that variants were going to be the big danger, but it wasn't part of the conversation.
Into this mix comes the George Floyd protests. There was a statement from a thousand medical professionals, some of high prominence, saying that it was okay to go out for this, because wacism is also a public health crisis. It turns out that the danger wasn't high. Outdoor transmission is minimal so long as people aren't hugging and cheek-by-jowl. But we didn't know that then, and the message on that was minimal. The statement was clearly "Oh SURE. Practice distancing, be careful, it's still dangerous, get right back inside...but go ahead. This is important."
So liberals got permission to bust out and have a good time seeing people and moving around, and got to feel self-righteous to boot. I remain convinced that this was an invitation to party for a type of non-raucous liberal white person who just wanted to have a walk in the park and chat with like-minded people. Another excuse that wasn't George Floyd would have been just as good. I am not saying that they don't "really care" about the issue of police targeting young black men, though I admit I am perpetually irritated on the issue because the police aren't doing that. The protests are founded on an untruth. Yet I do still get it that people legitimately believe it for sometimes understandable reasons, and they do at least partly "really care." Motivations are mixed and complicated. But it was unacknowledged at the time and still is that these protests were a great opportunity for liberals to go out and play while the conservatives had to stay cooped up.
The medical professionals who put this out weren't everyone, and it would be unfair to say "you all did this to us, the whole Medical Establishment." Yet the great majority, all those quite others, at minimum did not push back with any force saying this is irresponsible, or, if they believed there was little danger, that we could start going outdoors for other things too. This protest, which had some violence, led to further violence. Whatever excusing language you choose, that most protesters were peaceful, that injustice had left a lot of dry tinder around just waiting for a spark, that the critics of the protests were vewwy vewwy evil, the permission giving is not in doubt. Protesting, even with some violence, is okay, covid or not.
There were similar events that could have become the focus: a prominent black politician's funeral that was attended by many in conditions that were forbidden to everyday folks; a constant stream of stories about well-connected people (including a few conservatives) who were having get-togethers, or traveling, or going unmasked. The switch by Fauci on masks could have been forgivable if it was indecision or ambiguity. But it turned out to have a lot of deception, of not telling the public the full story because it wasn't good for them.
Well, what would the average person conclude from this?
You don't really think this is dangerous.
Your stuff matters but our stuff doesn't.
You are afraid of what black people will do if you don't allow this. 'Better let 'em blow off some steam and not be cooped up,' huh? (And who's the racist, here?)
The discussion changed forever at that point. Not for the better.