Pandemic Chronicles: Mandatory masks, our remake of 1918

Pressure to reopen businesses, fights over masks during Spanish Flu

PHOTO/NEVADA HISTORICAL SOCIETY: two Nevada women, identified as “Mrs. A. L. Hart and Mamie,” wearing surgical masks during the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

We’ve been down this road before, a century ago, and we wore masks. Some people really, really didn’t like it then, either.

 On Wednesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak, in a televised address, made mask-wearing mandatory for people in all public spaces. He pleaded with citizens to cooperate: “I don’t know why, but when (did) protecting our health and our neighbors’ lives become a political, partisan, or even philosophical decision? For me it’s none of those. It’s a medical necessity, a human obligation. And it’s good for businesses.” But we can’t blame the continuing, often irrational, divide over masks solely on the politics of 2020. It’s apparently in our American DNA.

When the misnamed “Spanish Flu” pandemic raged through three waves in 1918 and 1919, it killed about 50 million people around the world, including an estimated 675,000 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then, as now, face coverings and what we today call social distancing were the first-line defense against the novel contagion. Mask-wearing became mandatory in many jurisdictions and some folks rebelled against what they saw as government overreach.

There were no culture wars then; no polarized political chasm. Social media wasn’t stirring the pot. Yet, what happened in the pandemic 100 years ago mirrors what happened, and is happening, this year. There was denial, then alarm. The best-available scientific advice resulted in the shutdown of schools, churches and businesses. Most people initially complied with safety measures, records show. Then came economic concerns, wishful thinking and a too-fast reopening of businesses and public spaces. The bug came roaring back, or, more accurately, people came back to the bug.

Precautions were reinstated and some people defied them. Through it all, folks eventually got antsy. They wanted to go to church, see a play, belly up to a bar. Pandemic be damned. And in San Francisco, more than 4,000 people showed up at a meeting of an “Anti-Mask League,” an association that one researcher theorizes was partly driven by the politics of the woman who spearheaded the organization.

The United Press picked up the Anti-Mask League story.

Flash ahead a century. Once again, the scientific consensus is that masks slow the spread of the virus, although experts quibble about the number of lives they may save in a specific population. Once again, opponents of face coverings insist their estimation of masks’ efficacy trumps science. Or they argue that the mandate is an assault on their Constitutional freedom.  Economic boosterism and politics also play a hand. This movie premiered 101 years ago. We’re starring in the remake.

San Francisco recorded its first case of the Spanish Flu in late September of 1918. Within two weeks, there were more than 2,000 cases in the city, according to Dr. Peter Michel, curator of collections of Special Collections & Archives at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, University Library, who did research on the 1918 pandemic. Michel wrote that the city’s Board of Health banned public gatherings, closed schools and theaters, and warned citizens to avoid crowds. Service industry employees, including store clerks, barbers, bank tellers and others were required to wear masks.

On Oct. 25, San Francisco’s Board of Health passed an ordinance that “every resident and visitor… would be required to wear a mask while in public or when in a group of two or more people, except at mealtime.” At first, about 80% of people wore masks in public, according to Michel, and “anyone who failed to wear a mask or wore it improperly was charged with disturbing the peace, warned and for subsequent violations, fined or jailed.” The city health officer and the mayor, apparently too important to be arrested, got off with fines for going barefaced at a boxing match.

IMAGE/RAWPIXEL: Streetcar riders in Seattle weren’t allowed to board without masks during the 1918 pandemic.

Flu cases appeared in Reno in the Spring of 1918, but the real outbreak didn’t occur until October, when the bug hitched a ride from San Francisco to the Biggest Little City, then went for a tour of the rural counties. Back then, Nevada had a population of around 77,000. Las Vegas was a wide spot on a desert road with 2,000 residents; Reno’s population was about 12,000.

On Oct. 23, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that there were 20 cases in the city and that Nevada authorities ordered all trains entering the state be boarded, inspected and disinfected. Anyone showing symptoms of the flu would be put under quarantine by “qualified medical men” who were appointed as members of the state police. Reno’s mayor was quoted as blaming the city’s cases on “careless persons” arriving by rail. Californians complained about the plan. Deaths were reported in Carson City, Reno, Las Vegas, Ely and Elko.

IMAGE/NEWSPAPERS.COM: By mid-October, the Spanish Flu news shared front pages with the war reports.

The news of World War I, which was then drawing to a bloody end, dominated Nevada newspapers’ front pages. Flu bulletins crept into the inside columns and eventually, Page 1. Schools, churches and businesses shut down. On Oct. 22, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that the “Reno Red Cross chapter made 400 gauze influenza masks on Sunday.” The next day the paper reported that: “The ‘flu’ masks are making their appearance rapidly in Reno, many barbers, bank employees and others wearing them.” Sarah Oddie, the sister of former Nevada Gov. Tasker Oddie, wrote to her brother in Reno on Nov. 8 that in San Francisco, “We are living in a masked world. I suppose that Reno is also swathed in gauze. Everyone looks like a fierce hold-up. I hope that you are all escaping.”

Her letter is preserved at the Nevada Historical Society, which today is inviting Nevadans to document their history with the COVID pandemic to be preserved for future generations.

By the time Sarah’s epistle reached her brother, Reno’s business owners were petitioning the mayor to reopen their establishments. On Nov. 7, the same day the University of Nevada noted no new cases of infection, business owners complained to the mayor that Reno had been shut down “10 days longer than other cities which were under quarantine.” On Nov. 15, what we now call “non-essential businesses,” including barber shops, billiard parlors, saloons, dance halls, theaters and other businesses were allowed to reopen, the Journal reported. Theaters placed ads that gleefully declared both the war and the pandemic over.

IMAGE/NEWSPAPERS.COM: Reno theaters took out ads in the Nevada State Journal Nov. 16, 1918, inviting patrons back after having been dark for several weeks.

The flu didn’t read the papers. People kept getting sick and some died. Employees started wearing masks again while doctors debated the value of mandating the face coverings for the general public, according to the Reno Evening Gazette.

Things were worse in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Age reported in November that the town was running short of caskets and hospitals were overwhelmed with patients . Citizens were warned that, like today, people can be infected and spread the disease to others for days prior to showing any symptoms. They urged residents to keep their distance from other people.

“(The epidemic) must be controlled or a great loss of life will result. The public must cooperate and observe the regulations of the Health Department or little will be accomplished. If you do your duty you will have but little to fear. See to it that the following precautions are observed to the letter… We respectfully urge every person to wear a mask as required by order of the City Commissioners.”   — Dr. Roy W. Martin, the Clark County health officer, letter to the Las Vegas Age, Nov. 18, 1918.

Meanwhile, the first San Francisco mask ordinance had been scrapped on Nov. 21, and the city reopened in the euphoria that followed the end of the Great War. But when the cases and deaths continued to climb, the city passed another mask mandate on Jan. 17, 2019. Some San Franciscans thought that was an assault on their liberty. The initial ordinance had met some push back, but the reinstatement sparked organized opposition.  An “Anti-Mask League” formed and drew 4,500 people to its first meeting, a blatant violation of health regulations limiting public gatherings.

By Nov. 22, 1918, the mask ordinance was rescinded. Some of the women in the picture on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle formed the Anti-Mask League when the dictate was reinstated on Jan. 17, 1919. That mandate ended Feb. 1, but other precautions continued.

There was scattered resistance to the reinstatement, but the organized effort was spearheaded by a lawyer, suffragette, and civil rights activist, Mrs. E.C. Harrington. She may have had political motives that had more to do with a grudge than her aversion to masks, according to researcher Brian Dolan. The new law mirrored the previous ordnance.

“’Any person appearing in public shall wear a mask or covering, except when partaking of meals, over the nose and mouth, consisting of  four-ply  material  known  as  butter  cloth  or  fine-mesh  gauze.’ The penalties for failure to comply are set at a fine between $5 and $100 or imprisonment not to exceed 10 days.” – San Francisco Bill #5068, Oct. 22, 1918.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Jan. 19, the day after the renewed ordnance took effect, that 186 arrests were made and most of the perpetrators were released on $5 bail. Two “well-dressed women” were stopped by police and escorted to a pharmacy, where they purchased masks and were released. In one bizarre incident, a San Francisco health officer shot three people, two of them innocent bystanders, when a scofflaw refused to don a face covering. The perp, wounded in the leg and the right hand, was brought to a hospital, where he was treated, then arrested.

 Dolan wrote that “attacks on the mask policy were waged on every front: from lack of scientific evidence of their effectiveness, to being unhygienic, to the idea that forcing a piece of apparel on a citizen’s face was unconstitutional.” Those complaints echo the objections heard today. Nevada Gov. Sisolak said the recent mask mandate doesn’t include penalties, but he urged businesses to deny entry to customers without masks. He directed state and local agencies to enforce the measure and impose fines or criminal penalties if warranted.

Nevada newspapers in 1918 also reported scattered arrests and citations, but there’s no sign of organized resistance against mandatory face coverings. Yet, even people who wanted to comply with mask dictates had a tough time dealing with the primitive technology of the era.

Reno historian Alicia Barber, in a podcast for KUNR radio during the 100th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic two years ago, shared clips from the oral history of Edwin Cantlon, who was 7 years old and living in Sparks at the time of the contagion. In 1992, Cantlon told of a doctor visiting his family’s ranch.

“Dr. Joslin passed out masks which were similar to the early-day cloth masks used in the operating room, and gave the instructions to soak these masks in rubbing alcohol and then wear them over your nose and mouth.  This proved to be a chore that was beyond most people, and the smell of the rubbing alcohol, I guess, was the deciding factor, and this was soon discarded.” — Edwin Cantlon, recalling the 1918 pandemic, when he was 7.

Gauze masks became a common sight in the Reno-Tahoe area, Barber reported.  In nearby Plumas County, Calif., anyone caught in public without wearing one could be fined $25, about $425 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cost of living calculator. It’s uncertain if such fines were ever levied there. Barber noted that in Carson City, most of the children in the orphans’ home came down with the illness. Schools, Elks lodges, and other large buildings were converted into temporary hospitals, she wrote. In his oral history, Cantlon, who grew up to become a surgeon,  remembered that two of his classmates died.

By the time the pandemic faded in the spring of 1919, Nevada had 4,000 recorded cases, according to the Nevada Health Board. There are no accurate tallies of deaths, although southern Nevada fatalities were listed as 40 at the time. Record-keeping was spotty and causes of death were not always reported, so researchers believe those figures to be low estimates.

San Francisco, which weathered the first wave relatively well, became the nation’s pandemic epicenter after the reopening in November of 1918 and the revocation of the second mask ordinance in January, 1919. The city tallied 45,000 infections and 3,000 deaths.

How much wearing or not wearing masks or defying other health mandates affected that grim total, no one knows. But some commentators like NPR’s Tim Mak, speculated that organized opposition to the mask mandate as embodied in the Anti-Mask League helped turn a manageable public health crisis into a debacle.

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