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Mask resistance during a pandemic isn’t new – in 1918 many Americans were ‘slackers’

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We have all seen the alarming headlines: Coronavirus cases are surging in 40 states, with new cases and hospitalization rates climbing at an alarming rate. Health officials have warned that the U.S. must act quickly to halt the spread – or we risk losing control over the pandemic.

There’s a clear consensus that Americans should wear masks in public and continue to practice proper social distancing. While a majority of Americans support wearing masks, widespread and consistent compliance has proven difficult to maintain in communities across the country. Demonstrators gathered outside city halls in Scottsdale, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and other cities to protest local mask mandates. Several South Carolina sheriffs have announced they will not enforce their state’s mask order.

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I’ve researched the history of the 1918 pandemic extensively. At that time, with no effective vaccine or drug therapies, communities across the country instituted a host of public health measures to slow the spread of a deadly influenza epidemic: They closed schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and isolated and quarantined those who were infected. Many communities recommended or required that citizens wear face masks in public – and this, not the onerous lockdowns, drew the most ire.

Officials wearing gauze masks inspect Chicago street cleaners for the flu, 1918.
Bettman/Getty Images

In mid-October of 1918, amidst a raging epidemic in the Northeast and rapidly growing outbreaks nationwide, the United States Public Health Service circulated leaflets recommending that all citizens wear a mask. The Red Cross took out newspaper ads encouraging their use and offered instructions on how to construct masks at home using gauze and cotton string. Some state health departments launched their own initiatives, most notably California, Utah and Washington.

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Nationwide, posters presented mask-wearing as a civic duty – social responsibility had been embedded into the social fabric by a massive wartime federal propaganda campaign launched in early 1917 when the U.S. entered the Great War. San Francisco Mayor James Rolph announced that “conscience, patriotism and self-protection demand immediate and rigid compliance” with mask wearing. In nearby Oakland, Mayor John Davie stated that “it is sensible and patriotic, no matter what our personal beliefs may be, to safeguard our fellow citizens by joining in this practice” of wearing a mask.

Health officials understood that radically changing public behavior was a difficult undertaking, especially since many found masks uncomfortable to wear. Appeals to patriotism could go only so far. As one Sacramento official noted, people “must be forced to do the things that are for their best interests.” The Red Cross bluntly stated that “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” Numerous communities, particularly across the West, imposed mandatory ordinances. Some sentenced scofflaws to short jail terms, and fines ranged from US$5 to $200.

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Collage of newspaper headlines related to the previous year’s influenza pandemic, Chicago, Illinois, 1919. Headlines include ‘Police Raid Saloons in War on Influenza,’ ‘Flu Curfew to Sound for City Saturday Night’ and ‘Open-Face Sneezers to Be Arrested.’
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Passing these ordinances was frequently a contentious affair. For example, it took several attempts for Sacramento’s health officer to convince city officials to enact the order. In Los Angeles, it was scuttled. A draft resolution in Portland, Oregon led to heated city council debate, with one official declaring the measure “autocratic and unconstitutional,” adding that “under no circumstances will I be muzzled like a hydrophobic dog.” It was voted down.

Utah’s board of health considered issuing a mandatory statewide mask order but decided against it, arguing that citizens would take false security in the effectiveness of masks and relax their vigilance. As the epidemic resurged, Oakland tabled its debate over a second mask order after the mayor angrily recounted his arrest in Sacramento for not wearing a mask. A prominent physician in attendance commented that “if a cave man should appear…he would think the masked citizens all lunatics.”

In places where mask orders were successfully implemented, noncompliance and outright defiance quickly became a problem. 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. One Denver salesperson refused because she said her “nose went to sleep” every time she put one on. Another said she believed that “an authority higher than the Denver Department of Health was looking after her well-being.” As one local newspaper put it, the order to wear masks “was almost totally ignored by the people; in fact, the order was cause of mirth.” The rule was amended to apply only to streetcar conductors – who then threatened to strike. A walkout was averted when the city watered down the order yet again. Denver endured the remainder of the epidemic without any measures protecting public health.

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Precautions taken during the 1918 flu pandemic would not allow anyone to ride street cars without a mask. Here, a conductor bars an unmasked passenger from boarding.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In Seattle, streetcar conductors refused to turn away unmasked passengers. Noncompliance was so widespread in Oakland that officials deputized 300 War Service civilian volunteers to secure the names and addresses of violators so they could be charged. When a mask order went into effect in Sacramento, the police chief instructed officers to “Go out on the streets, and whenever you see a man without a mask, bring him in or send for the wagon.” Within 20 minutes, police stations were flooded with offenders. In San Francisco, there were so many arrests that the police chief warned city officials he was running out of jail cells. Judges and officers were forced to work late nights and weekends to clear the backlog of cases.

Many who were caught without masks thought they might get away with running an errand or commuting to work without being nabbed. In San Francisco, however, initial noncompliance turned to large-scale defiance when the city enacted a second mask ordinance in January 1919 as the epidemic spiked anew. Many decried what they viewed as an unconstitutional infringement of their civil liberties. On January 25, 1919, approximately 2,000 members of the “Anti-Mask League” packed the city’s old Dreamland Rink for a rally denouncing the mask ordinance and proposing ways to defeat it. Attendees included several prominent physicians and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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Poster of a Red Cross nurse wearing a gauze mask over her nose and mouth – with tips to prevent the influenza pandemic.
The National Library of Medicine/NIH

It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of the masks used in 1918. Today, we have a growing body of evidence that well-constructed cloth face coverings are an effective tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It remains to be seen, however, whether Americans will maintain the widespread use of face masks as our current pandemic continues to unfold. Deeply entrenched ideals of individual freedom, the lack of cohesive messaging and leadership on mask wearing, and pervasive misinformation have proven to be major hindrances thus far, precisely when the crisis demands consensus and widespread compliance. This was certainly the case in many communities during the fall of 1918. That pandemic ultimately killed about 675,000 people in the U.S. Hopefully, history is not in the process of repeating itself today.The Conversation

J. Alexander Navarro, Assistant Director, Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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‘I could have died’: Arizona Trump voters beg friends to take COVID seriously after getting hospitalized

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A pair of Arizona residents who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 are now imploring their friends to not make the same mistake they did when they refused to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

In an interview with CNN, Debi and Michael Patterson told reporter Omar Jimenez that they laughed off public health recommendations about protecting themselves against the disease.

"It was almost like a joke in our group of friends," Debi Patterson explained.

"Did you wear a mask?" Jimenez asked.

"Nope," she replied.

"Did you hang out with your friends as normal?" he asked, to which she nodded her head.

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MSNBC’s Morning Joe asks GOP senators how many Americans must die until they turn on Trump

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MSNBC's Joe Scarborough laid the blame for most of the U.S. coronavirus deaths on President Donald Trump's failure of leadership.

Instead of offering accurate information about the deadly virus, the "Morning Joe" host said the president tried to create an "alternate reality" to protect his own political fortunes instead of American lives.

"It is breathtaking, but this is what would be autocrats do," Scarborough said. "It's what they do across the world. They create their own reality, an alternate reality, and they invite their followers to come along and, like cult members, a lot of them do. A lot of them believe the alternate reality, and that's why Donald Trump still has the 40 percent or so hardcore support that he does have because he has gotten people to buy into alternative facts."

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France facing ‘highly likely’ second wave of COVID-19 in autumn or winter

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France's top scientific body on Tuesday said a second wave of the coronavirus was "highly likely" this autumn or winter as the country grapples with a marked increase of new cases of the disease over the past two weeks.

"France has the situation under control but it is precarious with a surge of virus circulation this summer. The short term future of the pandemic mainly lies in the hands of the population," the scientific committee on the disease said in a statement published by the Health Ministry's website.

"It is highly likely that we will experience a second epidemic wave this autumn or winter," the statement added.

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