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.” “
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.
“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 .
Except that this time, the spirit we are all in the same whole in the city has disappeared. Citizens at the supervisors’ meeting filled the public comment with wild claims, including a man who touted Russian wonder foods that would cure the flu.
“May Dillonbeck told the mayor and supervisors that the situation would be resolved if city officials cleaned up the city, the water supply and the sidewalks,” The Chronicle reported. “An 80-year-old man said he would not wear the mask and challenged the authorities to arrest him. The mayor invited him to sit on the platform and the invitation was accepted. “
City leaders took little responsibility for their mistake. Mayor Rolph blamed the strangers for the resurgence of the flu, saying that “… after San Francisco successfully eradicated it, the infection was brought to us by people coming here from other cities. “
Second wave politicians were less successful, preventing large crowds from gathering; social distancing is now accepted as a better flu prevention tactic than masks, particularly the thin gauze masks of 1919. Under pressure from business leaders and exhausted citizens, the city did not recommend the closing of theaters, churches and schools. A vocal “Anti-Mask League” formed, gathering crowds so large that they moved the meetings to an ice rink.
As of November 23, 1918, two days after the city declared victory over the Spanish Flu, 1,857 deaths have been reported in San Francisco, a city of approximately 500,000 people. By February 28, 1919, when the second wave of influenza ambushes had mostly decreased, that number had risen to 3,213, deaths from influenza still being counted.
(The Spanish flu killed some 500,000 Americans between 1918 and 1920, and more than 50 million worldwide.)
A century later, every word that declares victory in early 1918 is a warning siren for the future, and anyone wishing to declare the end of the fight in our lives.
“When the long epic on San Francisco’s part in the world war is written,” reported The Chronicle on November 22, 1918, “one of the most exciting episodes will be the story of how the city of St. Francis behaved with courage. when the black wings of this plague resulting from the war hovered over the city with its threat of death, sorrow and destitution. “
The city of Saint-François behaved courageously during the first two months. And then its leaders lowered their guard, and the story tells a more tragic story.
Peter Hartlaub is the pop culture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub