Yascha Mounk: Cancel everything
State and local judges, in response, routinely upheld the measures. For example, residents of Globe, Arizona, objected to their local health board’s order closing “all theaters, motion picture shows, banks, business houses, pool halls, shooting galleries, lodges, schools, and churches,” throwing in for good measure “any other place people are congregated.” The Supreme Court of Arizona was unsympathetic to the complaining residents and upheld local authority: “Necessity is the law of time and place, and the emergency calls into life the necessity … to exercise the power to protect the public health.”
While medical experts could not always agree on the steps local governments should take to prevent the spread of the flu, the most widely recommended were strict quarantines of towns and the mandatory use of face masks in public, although, as The New York Times reported on December 13, 1918, health officials in some of America’s larger cities “opposed both these measures and placed great reliance on [the development of a] vaccine.”
When local governments ordered residents to wear face masks when outside their homes, they often had to make their own because face masks were not available for purchase. The Red Cross organized volunteers to make masks and distributed them free throughout the nation, but more were needed. On September 28, 1918, The Boston Daily Globe instructed readers how to make a gauze mask; the Boston commissioner of health urged his constituents to “make any kind of a mask, any kind of a covering for the nose and mouth and use it immediately and at all times. Even a handkerchief held in place over the face is better than nothing.”
As one can well imagine, compulsory face-mask laws were hugely unpopular. News reports noted resistance in many towns across the nation. The local health officer might order it; whether the police chief would enforce it was another matter. Usually arrests were made without violence, but in one notable instance a San Francisco health officer shot three people, two of them innocent bystanders. Under the alarming headline “Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer,” a reporter for The Bellingham Herald described how the attempted arrest for refusal to wear a face mask led to the shooting:
On October 27, 1918, a special officer for the board of health named Henry D. Miller shot and severely wounded James Wisser in front of a downtown drug store at Powell and Market street, following Wisser’s refusal to don an influenza mask. According to the police, Miller shot in the air when Wisser first refused his request. Wisser closed in on him and in the succeeding affray, Miller shot him in the leg and right hand. Wisser was taken to the central emergency hospital, where he was placed under arrest for failure to comply with Miller’s order.
Jeremy Brown: The coronavirus is no 1918 pandemic