What happened in the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic regarding mask wearing regulation?
In the first wave of the epidemic in Vancouver, Dr. F. Underhill and the Mayor of Vancouver advocated for “veils” or masks, made out of gauze. An article in the Daily Province on October 28, 1918 noted that the Japanese community in Vancouver was already wearing gauze veils “under the advice of their three Japanese physicians who have been successfully fighting the epidemic in the Japanese colony.”
“Rooming house people” and shop keepers were universally wearing flu masks in the Japanese community and Dr. Underhill advised the public to “realize the necessity” of wearing a cheesecloth or gauze veil or a double strip of gause fastened around the nose and mouth. He also said the gauze could be medicated with a good antiseptic, and the cost was small for such veils and masks.
Elsewhere San Francisco had a mask order in October of 1918, which was dismissed in November and then reinstated in the second wave of the flu in January 1919. Fines for not wearing a mask ranged from 5 to 10 dollars, along with a ten day prison sentence.
Becky Little on History.com notes that at the time mandatory mask regulations came to cities, people that did not mask up could receive prison time, fines, or risk “having their names published in the paper, revealing that they were a “mask slacker”.
Hygiene changed at this time, especially in New York City where regulations were enforced to stop people spitting on the streets. There was advice to keep your face turned away from others on street cars, and to cover your mouth and nose when you coughed. Fresh air and exercise were advocated, as well as the tie-in that such good habits could also arrest other diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
There is also a move from individualism to a more collective way of looking at health with citizens being urged to protect themselves and also protect others. One message at the time was a jingle stating
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“Obey the laws and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws”.