The 1918 San Francisco Spanish Flu Debacle: A Critical Lesson for the Coronavirus Era


The first great San Francisco pandemic ended with a citywide celebration at noon on November 21, 1918.

A whistle sounded, church bells rang and citizens who had endured illness, death and many hard days of sacrifice to fight the Spanish flu ripped off their mandatory masks and threw them into the streets.

“After four weeks of muzzled misery, San Francisco unmasked at noon yesterday and ventured to catch its breath,” The Chronicle reported the following day, describing the scene. “Despite prayers issued by the Department of Health for the conservation of gauze, the sidewalks and tunnels were littered with a torturous month’s relics. “

Except it was not the end. The flu broke out in January, almost doubling the number of dead and taking advantage of a city that had completely lowered its guard. The Bay Area, hitherto a national success in the event of a pandemic, has become an edifying tale.

History is full of lessons, but history seems to be crying out through the decades, over a century later, carrying a message for this exact moment from the Bay Area. While some locals in 2020 struggle to interpret positive coronavirus trends as an excuse to ease orders in the bay area, the 1919 dead whisper, “Make sure you don’t give up on the fight too soon.” “

The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on November 21, 1918, the day the Spanish flu mask order was lifted.

After the flu arrived in San Francisco in late September 1918, the city was quick to take aggressive action. In addition to closing schools and churches, city leaders ordered theaters closed and public dancing banned. On October 24, 1918, the supervisory board ordered each citizen to wear a mask, the police imposing fines and imprisoning those who refused.

Among the so-called “maskers” was Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, who was photographed without a mask at a boxing event and fined $ 50.

The day after the 1918 mask was ordered, the city reached its peak, with 94 San Franciscans perishing in a single day. (As of April 8, 2020, authorities are reporting only 10 total deaths in San Francisco caused by the coronavirus.)

In early November, the measures appeared to be working, with 10 new cases on November 11, 1918 and no deaths from influenza. On November 18, 1918, The Chronicle urged the masking order to end with a headline editorial: “The epidemic has passed – and the public will rejoice when they are once again allowed to breathe freely. City politicians have eagerly declared victory as the city reopens with crowded theaters and bars.

Meanwhile, health officials have been quick to tackle the flu in the past. In what may be the “mission accomplished” moment of the pandemic, Red Cross President John Britton gathered volunteers for a take-out lunch hours after the order was lifted, saying: It is a great privilege to meet this indomitable band of workers today and to see each of you expose your unmasked complexion. “

It is now clear that dropping public custody was very premature. At the beginning of January, hospitals were again full with more than 25 flu deaths per day, and on January 11, 1919, the supervisory board voted 15-1 to revive the order of masks throughout the city.

The Oakland Civic Auditorium was used as a treatment center for Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919.

“Supervisor Joseph Mulvihill, himself sick with the flu, sent a note to the Council so that the minutes of the meeting register it as favorable to the adoption of the ordinance to be printed”, reported The Chronicle .


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