Dispatches from Fresno, 1918-19: Following the ‘Spanish’ Flu Pandemic in Real Time, Part XI

Fresno residents had something extra to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day, 1918: the influenza outbreak that had plagued their community since early October appeared to be over. In the days that followed, authorities continued to rescind a number of the emergency measures enacted to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Yet an early December report of a second flu wave hitting neighboring Merced raised the question of whether Fresno was reopening too soon—a question that many Fresnans (and Americans) are asking again today about our own reopening.

Day 55—Thursday, Nov. 28, 1918

The Thanksgiving Day edition was filled with stories that surely lifted readers’ spirits. “Masks Are Off,” announced one headline. The decision to temporarily lift the mask ordinance had been made the previous evening at a Board of Health meeting, though not without dissent. All of the physicians on the board agreed that the ordinance had been a “splendid” success, though they were divided on whether or not masks were still necessary. Some voices wanted to extend the mandate, while the majority of the board believed the waning number of new flu cases in Fresno—13 or 14 a day, according to city health officer Carleton Mathewson—made it time to “take off the masks.”

“The people began by obeying the law on the letter,” observed Board of Trustees member F.L. Irwin at the meeting. “They wore clean masks and kept them on. Now they take them off whenever a policeman is not looking[,] and I have seen masks that are so dirty that I cannot believe they do not do more harm than going without them.” Looking around at the individuals who had gathered that night, Irwin added, “There is not a man in this room wearing a mask now, except one.” Irwin described the lone exception—Board of Health member Dr. Hayden, who, along with Dr. Mathewson, opposed rescinding the mask order—as “a 50 per cent violator because his mask is not covering his nose.” He concluded that “the rest of us are 100 percent violators because we are wearing no masks at all.”

Ultimately, the Board of Health approved a provisional repeal of the mask order. The experiment would last until the following Monday, at which time the Board of Health would make a final recommendation to the Board of Trustees on whether or not a permanent end to the mandate was warranted. Just minutes after the Board of Health approved suspension of the measure, Mayor William Toomey instructed the chief of police to disregard the mask ordinance for the time being. Once again it was legal to walk the streets of Fresno mask free.

Before the Board of Health Meeting, Dr. Mathewson had removed several other emergency health restrictions, including limitations on the operating hours for cafes, soda fountains, ice cream parlors, and saloons. Since the epidemic began, Mathewson explained, 3,000 Fresnans had gotten sick, though 80% of the cases had been mild. 128 people had died from the flu or flu-caused pneumonia. Fortunately, the epidemic is over, he concluded, though the ever cautious health officer worried that “carelessness might bring it back.”

One measure of the progress that Fresno had made against the virus was the resumption of the classes for city children. All schools, School Superintendent Jerome O. Cross stated, would start again on Monday.

Finally, the Thanksgiving edition of the Republican announced an interdenominational holiday celebration that morning at the Fresno Municipal Auditorium. Perhaps 100 ministers from across the city were expected to participate. “Influenza masks are no longer required,” observed the paper, “another thing to be thankful for.”

Day 56—Friday, Nov. 28, 1918

5,000 Fresnans attended the interdenominational service on Thanksgiving Day, packing Municipal Auditorium with men, women, and children of different faiths. “No such services have ever before been held in the city of Fresno,” maintained the Republican. Curiously, the day’s speakers focused on giving thanks for victory in the war against the Germans overseas rather than the victory in the war against the flu at home. Perhaps it was too early for the community to declare ‘Mission Accomplished’ in this latter struggle, especially in a crowded auditorium filled with unmasked people.

Day 60—Tuesday, Dec. 3, 1918

“Fresno schools reopened yesterday,” declared the Fresno Morning Republican on Tuesday, December 3. Student turnout was strong, ranging from a low of 70% of enrolled students at Jefferson Elementary School to a high of 85% at Fresno High School. Superintendent Cross judged this “a very good record for the opening day following the epidemic.”

The paper also detailed the proceedings from a Board of Trustees meeting held the previous evening. It is not clear if the Board of Health issued its final recommendation on the mask mandate, but Dr. Mathewson did report that 12 new flu cases had been reported the day before. This record seemed enough to convince the trustees to delay all action in the matter. “The mask ordinance was not repealed,” concluded the Republican, “but it will not be enforced.”

And what of 117 people who had been arrested in recent weeks for violating the mask ordinance? Fresno’s attorney general informed Mayor Toomey that he planned to prosecute them as soon as it was safe to do so.

The December 3rd edition of the paper also included an ominous story from nearby Merced. That San Joaquin Valley town had reopened the previous week after seeming to have conquered its flu outbreak. But “laxity in health methods of the people of that town” had sparked a new wave of the virus—this one centered in the Merced Falls School, where 28 students as well as numerous teachers and parents had come down with the flu. All schools in Merced County had subsequently been closed, and health officials were making arrangements to move as many cases as possible to the county hospital.

Would the same thing happen in the newly reopened Fresno? A good question for December 1918 and for May 2020.

Ethan J. Kytle is a professor of history at California State University, Fresno. His latest book, coauthored with Blain Roberts, is Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which was published by The New Press in 2018. Ethan’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Civil War Monitor, and the Fresno BeeFor more installments in our Dispatches from Fresno series, click here.