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

By mid-December 1918, it was clear that a second wave of the flu was indeed hitting Fresno. City authorities responded by both ramping up the strict quarantine that had been implemented on December 8 and resuming several of the emergency measures they’d used to contain the first wave of the virus. Yet the resumption of October flu restrictions upset some local business owners, who weren’t interested in shutting down their operations again.

Day 69—Thursday, Dec. 12, 1918

The new quarantine will be administered by city health officials, announced the Fresno Morning Republican, on Thursday, December 12. There had been talk of using “outside help,” which would be funded by Fresno businessmen and merchants. But at a special meeting the night before the Board of Health had concluded that the city’s “regular health force” was up to the task.

So far, 180 city homes were under strict quarantine, according to city health officer Carleton Mathewson, and 42 new cases had been reported on Wednesday. “The records indicate that the quarantine is proving quite successful,” he stated. “The flare-up has not reached the high point expected.” Mathewson hoped that the quarantine would be sufficient to contain the second flu wave. But “if increases continue,” he added, “I am afraid we shall have to resort to masks again.”

Day 73—Monday, Dec. 16, 1918

With the number of flu cases growing by the day, the Women’s Council of Defense in Fresno issued an “urgent call” for nurses, describing the situation as “desperate.” Because of the quarantine, the demand for nurses was not as strong as it had been during the first wave of the flu Yet the supply of available nurses appeared to be down, and, as such, the Women’s Council urged anyone willing to serve as a nurse to call immediately.

Day 74—Tuesday, Dec. 17, 1918

“‘Flu’ Masks Are Ordered on by Health Board,” declared a headline in the Fresno Morning Republican on Tuesday, December 17. Less than three weeks after Fresno had stopped enforcing its mask order, city authorities—after a “heated” conference—instructed residents to resume wearing gauze masks in public.

The new mask ordinance read: “All persons while on any public street or in any public place within the limits of the City of Fresno shall wear a clean gauze mask consisting of not less than four layers of gauze covering the nose and mouth until this ordinance shall be repealed.”

The penalty for violating the mask regulation was a fine of up to $300, imprisonment of up to 3 months, or both.

The Fresno Board of Health also closed all churches and amusement places and outlawed public gatherings until further notice. And it mandated that with the exception of restaurants and drug stores, all other businesses, including soda fountains and saloons, must shut down at 7 pm each night.

This resumption of these emergence measures reflected the significant increase in new cases—105 had been reported the previous day alone.

The Board of Health stipulated that the quarantine had not been lifted. On the contrary, it “will be even more rigidly enforced than heretofore.” The Fresno Board of Trustees back up this declaration by authorizing two city policemen to enforce the quarantine.

The main difference between the response to the first and second flu waves, beyond the quarantine, was that the schools were to remain open—at least for the meantime. The superintendent of city schools supported this move, citing statistics suggesting that the virus was not yet spreading among students. He believed that Fresno children “would be better off in the schoolroom,” where they could be supervised by teachers, “than on the streets.”

These measures were announced after a tense conference between the Board of Health, the mayor, and the Board of Trustees. Mayor Toomey had called the conference because of rumors swirling around about who was in charge of the flu response and how it was being handled. “I want to make it clear,” said the mayor, “that the whole matter is in the hands of the board of health and that the city trustees and the mayor will take any action the board of health desires.”

Some of the tension in the meeting was rooted in a disagreement over the Board of Health’s decision not to use $1400 raised by local merchants to hire additional help and to pay city health office Mathewson to devote all his time to the flu fight. The board had agreed to this plan and then, after four days, abruptly called it off. More generally, Mathewson was frustrated that his system—which, he pointed out, had reduced the number of flu cases in Fresno to just four—had been stopped and the whole “thing left to drift.”

After the conference, the Board of Health met separately and voted 5-0 to pass the new health restrictions.

Day 75—Tuesday, Dec. 18, 1918

On December 18, Day 75 of Fresno’s flu pandemic, Morning Republican editor Chester H. Rowell penned an editorial explaining why mask were needed. A voice of reason since the start of the outbreak, Rowell systematically dismissed the major arguments against masks, including that idea that they could not possibly stop the spread of the microscopic flu germ. “It will not do to say that the efficiency of masks is an influenza epidemic is as yet among medical certainties,” he admitted. “But it can at least be demonstrated that the common arguments against the masks are groundless; that the use of masks is based on sound principle; and that California experience, so far as it has gone, appears to have justified them.”

Remarkably, Howell’s comments remain instructive a century later, as some Americans —including elected officials here in Fresno—are again casting doubt on the value of masks as a non-pharmaceutical intervention in the face of a viral outbreak. Today, of course, we know far more than did Rowell and his generation of Fresnans, and nearly all the evidence makes clear that widespread mask-wearing can help get the COVID-19 crisis under control. Yet despite modern epidemiologists’ consensus on the matter, we face the same ill-informed mask skeptics in 2020 as did Rowell and other mask supporters in 1918.

The December 18th edition of the Republican also included a report on a special meeting of the City Council the previous evening, which instructed Chief of Police Goehring to carry out the Board of Health’s new orders. The meeting was a direct response to the failure of many businesses to abide by the regulations and close early—in the case of stores, ice cream parlors, and saloons—or shut down entirely—in the case of poolrooms and other places of amusement.

At the meeting Mayor Toomey told the Board of Trustees that the city attorney had advised Chief Goehring not to enforce the Board of Health’s order until the Board of Trustees adopted an official ordinance empowering him to do so. He also informed the trustees that several poolroom owners were preparing to contest the new ordinance on the grounds that they had store licenses and, like other stores, should be allowed to remain open until 7 pm each night.

Mayor Toomey, for his part, believed that poolhall owners had a point. “I do not see why they should be included any more than saloons,” he said. “I do not believe they are any more dangerous.” Trustee Waterman disagreed, insisting that young men lingered for hours in pool rooms, where the stale air became a “breeding place of disease.”

Although two of the trustees were not in attendance that night, the remaining five voted to empower the police to enforce the new health measures. The “flu won’t wait,” insisted Waterman.

After the vote, Trustee Irwin requested permission to explain his vote. “Although this meeting is absolutely illegal, I vote, ‘aye,’” he said. Mayor Toomey also expressed his begrudging acceptance of the proceedings, asking the city clerk to record in the minutes that he was “in favor of backing up the board of health,” but he nonetheless believed that “some business men are not being treated fairly.”

These final comments highlighted a brewing conflict over whether and how to respond to the pandemic—one that would come to a head in the coming days.

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.