History Repeats itself: How San Francisco reacted to a pandemic and wearing masks 100 years ago


As we are starting to reopen the U.S. economy and we get accustomed to our new “normal” life because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t help but wonder how we would have survived without the new technology we now have in place. We have been able to keep in touch with family and friends via Zoom meetings, Google meet and even Facetime.

Our kids are able to continue school from home and “play” with friends using their devices, giving relief to many parents who have no idea how to entertain their own kids for 16 continuous hours of the day.

Well, 102 years ago our world endured a pandemic bigger than the one we are living now. The 1918 pandemic or Spanish flu killed almost 3% of the world’s population. About 500 million people became infected, 675,000 cases were reported in the United States alone.

During the 1918 pandemic San Francisco was the hardest-hit big city as it was one of the most populated at the time.

By the time patient zero was identified in the City and was ordered to quarantine by health officials it was already too late. During the month of October 1918 alone the number of infected people jumped from 169 to 2,000 in one week. After much resistance from city officials worried about the economy of the city, San Francisco was ordered to shut down. Much like us now, classes were canceled, businesses and theaters were closed down and citizens were required to wear face coverings.

San Francisco was the first city to require face coverings and imposed a fine of $5 (equivalent to about $90 in 2020) to anyone who was out in public without a mask.

Wearing face masks was a sign of patriotism in the era of WWI. The Red Cross even had a public announcement: “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker,” according to Alex Navarro, assistant to the director of the Center for the History of medicine at the University of Michigan.

By the end of November 1918, officials saw a dip of new cases reported and believed the city had stabilized. The residents of San Francisco even had a reopening and mask-off celebration on November 21. The San Francisco Chronicle reported about the celebration that “ sidewalks and runnels remain strewn with the relics of a torturous month.”

Of course, the Spanish flu pandemic was far from over, and reopening the City prematurely led to a dramatic increase in cases, seeing as many as 600 in only one day.

They had flattened the curve without knowing it, but letting their guard down by relaxing their ordinances became their biggest mistake.

In January 1919, the death toll nearly doubled. Citizens protested when officials tried to re-establish the mandatory use of face masks and there was even an Anti-mask League! The citizens of San Francisco lost faith in their health officers and government officials, claiming they had been shut down for nothing. San Francisco became a tragic story.

Social distancing became a more accepted practice than the face coverings to prevent the flu. Under pressure from business leaders and citizens, the city didn’t shut down again, keeping theaters, churches and schools open.

By the end of February 1919, and after the second wave of infections, flu cases burst to a death toll of 3,213 city residents, with no end in sight.

Specifically to our neighborhood…..

Back then, the Mission District was a mixed neighborhood of Eastern European, Irish, Swedish, and German immigrants. The Latino community did not move to the neighborhood until the 1950’s.

Learning from the precautionary measures of the past, combined with the social justice activism and the resilience of the current Latinx community, particularly the Latino Task Force, has allowed Mission District residents to be aware of the importance of sheltering in place, wearing face coverings and social distancing.

This timely information allows us a firmer grip as we brace for the much anticipated second wave of infections this September.