What did people say about wearing masks in the 1918 pandemic? It sounds familiar

A different pandemic swept across the world a century ago, killing about 60 million people.

Schools and businesses closed, and many cities required people to wear face masks to slow the spread of the devastating influenza outbreak of 1918. And back then, just like today, some people balked at the idea of the government telling them what to do.

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Some protested and openly defied local orders as World War I raged in Europe, J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director at the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine, wrote this month for The Conversation.

About 2,000 members of the so-called Anti-Mask League gathered in San Francisco in 1919 “for a rally denouncing the mask ordinance and proposing ways to defeat it,” Navarro wrote.

Sound familiar?

Face masks have been a political and cultural flash point in the United States as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 140,000 people in the country since March.

In Michigan, some people carried assault rifles into the state Capitol building this spring to protest the governor’s orders, drawing international attention. Similar protests have played out in cities across the country.

During the flu pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans in 1918 and 1919, “noncompliance and outright defiance quickly became a problem,” Navarro wrote of face-mask mandates. “Many businesses, unwilling to turn away shoppers, wouldn’t bar unmasked customers from their stores. Workers complained that masks were too uncomfortable to wear all day.”

Much like today, some people pleaded for compliance. Headlines from Chicago newspapers in 1919 declared, “Open-face sneezers to be arrested.” “Police raid saloons in war on influenza; Keep church windows open.” “’Nonessential’ crowds barred in epidemic war.”

In an October 1918 advertisement in the Oakland (California) Tribune, the Red Cross said, “A gauze mask is 99% proof against influenza.”

The ad continued: “Doctors wear them. Those who do not wear them get sick. The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.”

The 1918 pandemic started in the spring, but did not raise many alarms until that fall, killing more than 20 million people in a matter of weeks in October and November, according to the National Archives.

“The scale of the disease created mass panic. Churches and schools were closed, while local businesses and services that remained opened struggled with staff shortages. Too frightened to go out in public, people isolated themselves in their homes, leaving the streets nearly empty,” the National Archives said

In late November 1918, The Rocky Mountain News in Denver quoted the city’s mayor as he called for everyone to wear face masks: “The wearer is not only protecting himself, but is protecting others. It is the moral obligation of every person to wear a mask in a street car or in a store.”

Health experts have made similar morality pleas amid coronavirus: If you won’t wear a mask for yourself, do it for others, they say.

“Cloth face coverings are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected but does not have symptoms,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

So how did Denver’s mandate go over 102 years ago? It “was almost totally ignored by the people; in fact, the order was cause of mirth,” according to a report from the Rocky Mountain News at the time.