Compliance in the City
The masking debate that defined a pandemic is nothing new. History has seen this before.
The Introspect is an ongoing series examining past events and people with an emphasis on the human condition and relevance in today’s world.
It was mid-October and San Francisco was in the thick of it. Politicians and health leaders in the city had forced the closure of schools, community centers, theaters, and other places of public gathering. Overburdened health agencies were at a breaking point. The virus – a countrywide epidemic – was tearing through the city. San Francisco needed to slow the spread.
But authorities in the region first needed compliance. The Board of Health issued recommendations to the public such as avoiding crowds and following good personal hygiene. Hospitals were told to accept only critical need patients in order to avoid a system collapse. Still, it wasn’t enough, and city leaders insisted more should be done. Then came the ordinance: city workers who served the public were ordered – by law – to wear face masks. A few days later, every resident in the city was mandated to ‘mask-up’ while in public or in a group of two or more. Mealtimes were the exception.
“Obey the laws, and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws.”
To promote widespread changes in health behaviors among the public, advocates, physicians and officials utilized mass media interventions such as public service announcements, espousing the virtues of wearing a mask and caring for neighbors, especially those who were sick or elderly. Patriotic themes and emotional appeals – often defined as propaganda – proliferated in the city. Catch-phrases and slogans became easy ways to influence the public and to ensure compliance. Then came the shaming.
Though an estimated four out of five San Franciscans wore face coverings, dissenters held firm in their resistance. These outliers –the anti-maskers –were called dangerous and selfish. They were ostracized as slackers. Relationships suffered. Some were fined or kicked out of establishments. Several faced jail time. Physical altercations ensued. But mask opponents –despite the authoritarian approach – would not comply and they continued to complain, citing the ineffectiveness of mask materials as being too porous or looking like muzzles. Others worried that masks affected their own personal health or that they couldn’t breathe. Some said that forced facial coverings were unconstitutional and that it should be an individual choice.
The city was divided. At one point, a San Francisco health officer shot three people – an individual named James Wisser and two innocent bystanders over a mask dispute. Mr. Wisser, according to reports, refused to wear a face covering.
This was the city of San Fransisco in 1918 during the four week face mask ordinance.
While many modern day mask opponents might scoff at a measly four week mandate, they would undoubtedly empathize with the plight of fellow anti-maskers, even those living through the Spanish Flu pandemic over a hundred years ago. Their stories, in fact, are unequivocally similar. Both groups faced penalties and fines for refusal to mask. Both groups experienced ostracism and public shaming. And both groups loathed –perhaps most fiercely– the hypocrisy and phoniness of authority figures.
It was Saturday November 16, 1918 and most establishments in San Francisco had reopened. The Board of Health voted to lift the bans three days prior so long as every citizen wore masks inside buildings and when congregating outside in groups. It was a day of celebration for city residents desperate for a bit of fun and entertainment. It was also a great day for a fight.
Nicknamed "The Rochester Plasterer", American boxer Fred Fulton, would go down in history as one of the greatest punchers of all time. He was big and he was strong, and on that night, he would fight Willie Meehan inside the Civic Auditorium. The wild crowd, which included several prominent men of the city, packed in tight, and watched Fulton win easily by decision. The boxing match – if you can imagine – was a thrill. It was also revealing.
Of the prominent names in attendance that night, two men, James Rolph and Dr. William Hassler, easily stood out in the crowd. One of the reasons both men stood out was due to their high positions in the city of San Francisco. James Rolph, also known as Mayor Rolph, served the city for nineteen years and was known as a “mayor of all the people. In fact, one of his signature achievements as mayor was the construction of the Civic Auditorium. He was also responsible for shutting down the city weeks prior and issuing the controversial mask order. Nearby, Health Officer, Dr. Hassler – a lead member of San Francisco’s influenza task force – watched the fight with fellow city leaders including a congressman, a justice, a Navy rear-admiral, and several supervisors. The men were easy to spot, which brings us to the other reason both men stood out in the crowds. Neither wore a mask.
It’s a story similar to our very own. High-profile politicians and leaders are caught in a compromising position, disobeying the very rules they bestowed upon the commonplace. But someone – as we all know – is always watching. And on the night of November 16 inside the packed auditorium, a police photographer recorded, on film, the bare-faced men for all the city to see, along with the chief of police. Both men paid fines. There were no arrests, no jail sentences and neither was met with violence.
While there’s no definitive link to the November 16 mask blunder and mandates coming to an end, city-wide restrictions dropped just days later. On November 21, newspapers made the decree: “Masks Will Be Put In Discard At Noon Today.” Hassler, the paper said, claimed the flu pandemic had been stamped out and ‘the wearing of masks was no longer necessary.’ Without delay, and at precisely 12:00 PM, sirens gave the signal. City residents tossed their masks into the air and onto the streets. One can only imagine the litter lining sidewalks and roads.
There were a few attempts by city leaders to reinstate mask mandates as reported influenza surges spread in the city. But public perception about face coverings shifted, at which point several noteworthy San Franciscans, city physicians, and a member of the Board of Supervisors, formed “The Anti-Mask League.” Over 2,000 people attended the league’s first public meeting.
The influenza epidemic killed approximately 3,000 people in San Francisco after 45,000 reported infections. According to final figures released by the United States Public Health Service, the city – despite its rigid approach to disease mitigation – suffered greatly with a death rate of 715 per 100,000 people.
When considering moments in time such as San Francisco in November 1918, it’s important to examine the historic parallels to our present moment. Human behavior – past, present, and future – is universal and defies time and space. What we are now living, we have already lived. Our thoughts, actions and feelings are as old as time itself – and the anti-maskers of yesterday and today will carry forward to pandemics of the future. Plan on it.
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