When the clock struck noon, the masks came off.
It was Nov. 21, 1918, and San Francisco residents gathered in the streets to celebrate not only the recent end of World War I and the Allies’ victory, but also the end of an onerous ordinance that shut down the city and required all residents and visitors to wear face coverings in public to stop the spread of the so-called Spanish flu.
A blaring whistle alerted gratified residents across the city and, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time, “the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month,” despite warnings from the health department to maintain face coverings. As celebrations continued and residents flocked to theaters, restaurants and other public spaces soon thereafter, city officials would soon learn their problems were far from over.
Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, as President Donald Trump urges the reopening of the country and some states, such as Georgia, move to resume normal business even as new cases emerge, how officials acted during the 1918 flu pandemic, specifically in cities such as San Francisco, offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of doing so too soon.