This is part one of a two-part editorial. The second part will be run in the April 15 edition of The Franklin News-Post.
Should we all be wearing masks right now?
We’re not medical experts, so we’ll leave the medical guidance up to those who are. However, we do know this: Some American cities tried requiring masks during the 1918 flu pandemic and people didn’t much like it — even though evidence shows the masks did help slow the spread of that particular virus.
In Birmingham, Alabama, that year, police donned masks as a way to make the facial gear more socially acceptable. However, not even government mandates could get everyone to wear a mask.
Denver required people to wear masks while riding streetcars, attending church, attending the theatre, shopping, riding in elevators, working in a factory, working in any building in which the public was admitted or visiting the doctor. The result was “almost indescribable confusion,” according to the Rocky Mountain News (and, the Influenza Archives at the University of Michigan’s Center for Medical History, from which most of these accounts are drawn). Journalists went around downtown to see how many people were complying. Most stores weren’t. “We have received no direct orders from the health department and cannot take notice of a newspaper report,” said one store manager. Another gave a response we might hear today: “She believed that a higher authority than the Denver Department of Health was looking after her well-being.” And then there was the matter of how to enforce the order: The city couldn’t. “Why, it would take half the population to make the other half wear masks,” the mayor lamented. He wound up revising the rules at least three times until the point that the center says the order was “practically meaningless.”
Des Moines, Iowa, also issued a mask order, with similar results. The center’s account: “ Theatergoers were unhappy that they had to wear masks while watching stage performances or movies, and theater owners were unhappy that they had to enforce the order in their establishments. Box office receipts fell drastically. . . . Across the city, theaters and movie houses reported half of the usual attendance. Many Des Moines residents, it seemed, so disliked wearing flu masks that they preferred to remain at home rather than to don one.” That might have been good for what today we call “social distancing” but did not please the business community in Des Moines. “Bending to the will of the people and business interests” — and even doctors who thought masks were nonsense — the Board of Health revoked the order, even thought the flu outbreak was at its peak.
The press had a field day with masks, sometimes whipping up the public against them. In Indianapolis, “one enterprising newspaper reporter even called [the mayor] at his home one evening to pester him with humorous questions relating to smokers and how they were supposed to manage their mask.” In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer newspaper suggested that political candidates pass out masks with their slogans printed on them.