In the middle of a devastating global pandemic. a few thousands people gathered in San Francisco to protest against measures meant to slow the spread of the virus. Many of the protesters at the meeting claimed the measures were trampling on their constitutional rights, while a few others argued that the measures weren´t working anyway. The group called itself the Anti-Mask League, and its story blends right into today´s news- but it took place in January 1919, when the virus sweeping through San Francisco and the rest of the world was influenza.
The Firts Wave And The War Effort
The first cases of the 1918 flu reached San Francisco late September of 1918, right around the time. Philadelphia was planning its ill-fated War Bond parade.Less than a month later, more than 2,000 people in the city were sick. San Francisco´s Board of Health issued some recommendations that sound a lot like life in most of the U.S.A. today, telling people to wash their hands and avoid crowds. After a few days of debate, the city closed its dance halls, theaters, movie houses, and schools, and prohibited large gatherings.
San Francisco joined other cities around the country in recommending- and then requiring, a few days later- that people wear masks anytime they were out in public. Some people complained, out loud and in writing, masks were a hassle, they said, and requiring people to wear them was unconstitutional (that hasn´t held up in court). California´s state health officials hesitated to recommend masks for the whole state, though, since they weren´t sure gauze masks ( the standard at the time, even for doctors and nurses working with flu patients) would do any good againts the influenza virus.
And they weren´t wrong. Gauze is even less useful at stopping 80-120 nanometer
( 08 to 1.2 micron) virus particles than the multiple layers of tightly- woven cotton the CDC recommends today, The fashionable drapes of chiffon many women wore did no good at all. But by late 1918, masks had become natilonal symbol of responsability and patriotism. Slowing the spread of influenza became part of the war wffort in the final months of World War I.
"The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask is now a dangerous slacker", declared the Rred Cross in a public service announcement. In cities like San Francisco, people found not wearing masks were charged with "disturbing the peace". Most paid $ 5 fines ( which went straight to the Red Cross ), some went to jail until it became apparent that crowding people into jails during a pandemic was, at best, not a great idea.
Most people complied with the rules, though. City officials estimated that about 80% of San Francisco wore their masks. One of those who didin´t was then- mayor James Rolph; reporters caught him put in public unmasked. posing with a congressman, an admiral, and two judges- all bare-faced. When the city´s police chief saw the photo, he promptly fined his boss $50.
Masks, effective or not, had become an important symbol that the wearer was willing to do their part to fight the pandemic ( and the Central Powers ). Around the country, there were even a few reports of maskless people being attacked in the streets. None of that fervor meant that people actually liked wearing the masks, thought ( it´s likely that many of us today can relate ). When San Francisco rescinded its masks order on November 21, 1918, just 10 days after the end of the war, people ripped their masks off, tore them to pieces, and tossed them into the streets.
The Second Wave And the Anti-Mask League.
Just like today, the drastic measures San Francisco and the rest of the country took in 1918 seemed to work. "Flatten the curve" wasn´t a term people used in 1918, but that´s what seemed to be happening. By mid- November, fewer people were getting sick, and San Francisco began to re-open, just as parts of the world are doing today. People packed into theaters, eager to get back to business ( and pleasure ) as usual- and within two weeks, the deadly flu had made a dramatic comebcak. And- in San Francisco and all over the world- the second wave was worse than the first.
By mid-Janaury 1919, city officials once again ordered people to wear their masks in public. And in the midst of the devastating outbreak, a group of between 2,000 and 4,000 people decided to hold a large public gathering in order to protest being told to wear masks.
The Ant-Mask League, as the group called itself, eventually presented a petition to the Board of Supervisors, demanding the repeal of the mask ordinance, San Francisco lifted its mask order on Febraury 1, 1919, just 4 days after the Anti-Mask League presented is petition- but also around the time the second wave of influenza was beginning to tapersight, it´s hard to know quite off. And in hindsight, it´s hard to know quite what make of the Anti- Mask League.
Its members acounted for less than 1% of San Francisco´s population at the time-perhaps 4,000 people out of around 500,000. Ironically, that´s close to the same member of people died of the 1918 influenza outbreak in the city.
So the Anti-Mask League wasn´t exactly a large grassroots movement, but its meembers included doctors and at least one selected city official. And at the time, even California´s state Baord of Health was arguing that flimsy gauze were probably ineffective anyway.
"The attitude of the state board is encouranging the Ant-Mask League", a San Francisco city health official respond. That debate played out in front of a frightened and frustrated public- much like the debate over masks during the COVID-19 pandemic played our earlier his spring.
While ir´s rule that cloth masks are far from perfect shield against tiny virus particles, but the best available data suggests that they ´re much better than nothing when it comes to keeping infected people exhaling virus-laden droplets of spit and mucus all over the people around them. And since it´s possible in spread COVID-19 long before you realise you´re infected, wearing a mask is usually the responsable thing to do, just as it was in 1918.
Nely Friedrich 2, May 2020