Cases of the Spanish Flu appeared in San Francisco during the fall of 1918. By mid-October, the city had over 2,000 cases. The city’s Board of Health enacted various measures to curb the disease, such as banning gatherings, closing schools and theatres, and warning citizens to avoid crowds. Professions that served customers (i.e. restaurants, barbers and store clerks) were required to wear masks. On October 25, the city passed an ordinance requiring everyone in San Francisco to wear a mask while in public or when in a group of two or more people, except at mealtime.
The initial compliance of the ordinance was high, with about 80% of people wearing masks in public. The Red Cross sold masks at the ferry terminal for incoming passengers. Anyone who failed to wear a mask or wore it improperly was charged with disturbing the peace. A warning was issued first and after any subsequent violation was fined or jailed. The mask ordinance was annulled on November 21, 1918. When the Second wave of the Spanish Flu increased the sick count, a new ordinance was passed that mandated mask wearing in January 1919.
Some residents didn’t like the first mask ordinance, but the second one energized the disgruntled. The Anti-Mask league was formed in response to the growing discontent with the mask ordinance. Members of the league included physicians, civil libertarians and one member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, about 4,000–5,000 residents attended the league’s meeting on January 25.
The league could not come to a consensus on its purpose. Some members wanted to collect signatures on a petition to end the mask requirement. Other members wanted to start recall procedures for the city health officer. Still others were using the league to advocate for the Mayor James Rolph, Jr. to resign if he did not repeal the ordinance. The President of the league, Mrs. E.C. Harrington, was a fierce critic of the mayor. Some objections to the ordinance was based on questions of scientific data while others considered the ordinance to infringe on civil liberties.
The California Secretary of State’s Board of Health even questioned the efficacy of masks, which fueled the league’s stance. On January 27, the league presented a petition to the City’s Board of Supervisors, requesting the repeal of the mask ordinance. San Francisco relented and lifted the mask requirement effective February 1, 1919. According to medical historians, the decline in deaths from influenza in San Francisco can be partly attributed to the mandatory mask-wearing policies.
The Anti-Mask league was formed and fueled by those who felt their civil liberties were being trampled and for political motives. In 2020, there have been protests around the United States about the mandatory wearing of masks because of the Covid-19 virus. Some of these people at the rally are fierce Libertarians and don’t like the government interfering in their day-to-day life. Similar to 1919, there are others using the uproar and protests for political purposes.
President Trump fumbled and bungled the U.S. handling of the Covid -19 virus. Instead of Trump acknowledging his mistakes and trying to do better, he and his administration took another strategy to deny, ignore and act oblivious to the seriousness of the virus. The President is often seen in public with no mask. His followers have taken the President’s lead by not wearing masks. Some of his supporters followed Trump’s policy and lead so religiously that they caught the virus and died from being in large gatherings and not wearing masks (i.e. Herman Cain).
What we can learn from this story is that politics trumps everything, even public health. It’s been shown that mask wearing can cut down on the transmission of the virus, yet political goals and propaganda trumps science and the health of the public in the eyes of some. There are some who believe mandatory wearing of masks is an infringement of their civil rights and that’s ok though it totally neglects the impact their actions may have on the public. I believe most of the anti-mask protestors are being used like pawns for a political strategy, and they are unaware or aware of this and don’t care. I don’t know what’s worse.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on August 29, 2020.