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

By the third week of December, Fresno’s simmering conflict over the resumption of flu restrictions in the face of the second wave of the virus exploded into a full-fledged battle, pitting the Board of Health against local merchants and ministers, as well as city officials who represented them. Ultimately, those unwilling to accept another round of emergency health measures emerged victorious in this struggle, though at a steep cost.

Day 77—Thursday, Dec. 19, 1918

“Flu Order Stands Unchanged After Protests,” announced the Fresno Morning Republican on Thursday, December 19. The previous evening representatives from almost every church in town appeared before the Board of Health to plea that “it was unfair to close the churches and places of amusement in the fight to stamp out influenza and yet allow the large department stores and other places where people congregate to remain open.” If it is not safe to gather in “large, well-ventilated church auditoriums,” they insisted, then “it is equally, if not more, unsafe” to gather in city stores all day and night. Some of these men of the cloth no doubt had the upcoming Christmas holiday in mind as they made their appeal.

Fresno merchants, for their part, pushed the Board of Health to pursue one of two courses:

  • Shut down everything in the city with the exception of stores that provide basic necessities for survival, such as meat markets and groceries, which should operate on reduced hours.

  • Allow all churches, places of amusement, and stores to remain open, while enforcing a strict quarantine, at the Merchants’ Association’s expense, as well as the mask ordinance.

After the presentations, the Board of Health convened privately and then announced that it had no intention of rescinding its orders to close city churches and places of amusement.

The Republican also reported that Fresno city schools, which had thus far remained open during the second wave, would be closed until at least December 30. Attendance had declined significantly in recent days, observed the school superintendent. He added that there would be no attempt to make up work missed because of the closings and students would not be prevented from the usual promotions and graduations.

Day 78—Friday, Dec. 20, 1918

500 Fresno homes under quarantine, stated the Republican on Thursday, December 20. The paper also reported 75 new cases of the flu and 5 deaths. Deputy health officer and Board of Health secretary Paul Norton speculated that the higher number of fatalities may indicate that the city was approaching the peak of the second wave, which had begun three weeks earlier.

Norton hoped the quarantine would help prevent the second outbreak from being as devastating as the first. But that would require vigilance from the entire community. While red quarantine cards had been posted at 500 homes, some families failed to observe the quarantine and others lived in houses where there were unreported cases. “It would be rendering a great public service,” said Norton, “if all neighbors of persons afflicted with the flu, but who have not called a doctor and neighbors of those who are violating quarantine would notify the board of health at once.”

Norton added that the new cases over the past week appeared to be more virulent than those during the previous two weeks. As a result, the city had reopened the orphanage hospital and it may again have to establish other temporary hospitals across town.

Day 79—Saturday, Dec. 21, 1918

“Action taken last night at a special meeting of the board of health,” declared the Fresno Morning Republican on December 21, “will remove today the influenza ban that was placed on churches, theaters, saloons, pool halls and other places of public assemblage.” The Board of Health also also suspended the quarantine, leaving only the mask requirement in place.

The Board of Health made clear that it was rescinding these measures under protest after City Attorney Edgar Van Meter insisted that they were not enforceable unless backed up by a city trustees ordinance. When asked by the board president why Van Meter had not raised similar misgivings during the first wave of the flu, city health officer Carleton Mathewson was at a loss. But he did note that a number of merchants and businessmen, including Bert Maul, who was the mayor’s brother-in-law and owned a pool room, had threatened to bring a lawsuit against the city.

Addressing the objections raised by Maul and other business owners who felt unfairly targeted by the restrictions, Dr. Mathewson said that “the theaters and the pool halls are not in any sense essential, while there could be some base for a pleas that a story was carrying on an essential trade.” He did not, however, address the Board of Health’s decision to allow saloons to remain open. After all, saloons could not easily be framed as essential and thus they were the target of much of the animus from merchants and ministers alike. (It is worth noting that after Governor Gavin Newsom closed bars in Fresno on Sunday, some bar owners insisted that in the current pandemic it was bars that were being unjustly singled out.)

Dr. Thomas Hayden, president of the Board of Health, highlighted the board’s frustrations: “Unfortunately the mayor is out of town and it seems we can do nothing to keep closed the places we believe ought to be kept closed….The ministers, the merchants, the theater people, the owners of pool halls all resent the step we took.” Some people, explained Hayden, had even made veiled threats against board members on the night they announced the emergency measures.

“I am in favor of rescinding the resolution now and then watching consequences. We did our duty as public servants and medical men by taking the course we thought best….Let us tonight permit all who have found fault with this resolution to have their way. Let them take responsibility.”

After the meeting, Dr. Mathewson and Board of Health secretary Paul Norton sent a telegram to state authorities asking what power the Board of Health had to close non-essential businesses and to implement a quarantine.

Adding special urgency to this query was the fact 90 new cases had been reported in Fresno the day before, according to Norton. And some of the newly diagnosed patients were suffering from their second bout of the virus.

To make matters worse, pneumonia was quite prevalent among the new cases. As a result, the county hospital and the sanitariums accepting flu patients were completely full—a dire situation that Fresno may again be approaching as we struggle to contain our own viral outbreak in 2020.

To help redress the hospital bed shortage, Fresno’s Red Cross chapter initiated plans to establish an emergency flu hospital at either the Fresno Auditorium or the Fresno Normal College building, facilities that it hoped could house between 500 and 1000 patients.

Day 81—Sunday, Dec. 23, 1918

Two days after Fresno health officials reached out to the state about the Board of Health’s authority, the Republican published the response the city had received: The Board of Health could not enforce orders to closer businesses or churches without an ordinance from city trustees, but it did have “full authority under the law to isolate all influenza cases in hospitals.” Unless the trustees acted—and there was no sign that they would—the mask regulation would be the only emergency health measure in place in Fresno.

In the meantime, the situation remained critical. 67 new cases had been reported the day before and the paper issued a “desperate” call for nurses and ambulance drivers.

Day 82—Tuesday, Dec. 24, 1918

According to Christmas Eve issue of the Morning Republican almost $300 in fines were added to the city treasury the previous day from fines paid by 50 people arrested for violating the mask ordinance. Many Fresnans, it seems, were unwilling to abide by the lone anti-flu measure still being enforced in the city. Nearly all of the violators been arrested over the past two days. “The police department will soon be self-sustaining at this rate,” remarked one officer.

Fortunately, the December 24th edition of the paper also announced the opening of the Red Cross hospital at the Fresno High School annex on Stanislaus Street. It could accommodate 150 patients.

Another bit of good news was that the number of new cases reported the day before (56) was lower than at any point in the previous week.

Still, over the past eight days—as Fresnans fought over whether and how to respond to the second wave of the deadly virus—17 residents had died and 654 had become ill.

Would the Christmas services many local churches planned to hold the following day make the situation even worse?

As COVID-19 cases mount in Fresno—and across much of the United States—today, we might ask the same question about upcoming Fourth of July celebrations.

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.