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Photos show how San Francisco emerged from a lockdown too soon during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, leading to an even deadlier second wave that rampaged through the city


  • San Francisco received national praise for its early, proactive response to the Spanish flu pandemic in the fall of 1918.
  • But when the number of cases tapered off by November 1918, the city relaxed restrictions on the public too early, ultimately leaving San Francisco with one of the highest death rates in the US by the spring of 1919.
  • As another pandemic grips the city a century later, San Francisco’s past decision-making could provide the best guidance for sheltered-in-place residents on keeping the coronavirus disease at bay: Be patient.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

During the fall of 1918, San Francisco acted quickly when the Spanish influenza hit, implementing a shutdown and enforcing mask-wearing in public.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because San Francisco is one of many Bay Area counties that also took proactive steps in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But if San Francisco’s track record of responding to pandemics is any indication, lifting the gates on the lockdown too soon could have disastrous consequences.

Spanish-flu infections seemed to dwindle by November 1918, and the city relaxed lockdown orders. When another wave hit San Francisco, much of the public — including “The Anti-Mask League” — resisted the mandates that city leaders reenacted to help blunt the spread of the disease. The city ended up with nearly 45,000 cases and over 3,000 reported deaths.

It’s a cautionary tale as officials across the US fight to flatten the curve against the coronavirus disease by implementing stay-at-home orders and city shutdowns, even as some Americans protest those measures.

Here’s how San Francisco went from serving as a national role model to having one of the country’s highest death rates during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Schools, churches, and movie theatres were closed, mass gatherings were banned, and public dancing was prohibited.

Court is held outdoors in a park because of influenza in San Francisco in 1918.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle

As the Chronicle reported, a whistle blew and people poured out onto the streets in celebration, tossing their masks in the process.

A boxing ring and audience at Civic Center Auditorium on November 16, 1918.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

“After four weeks of muzzled misery, San Francisco unmasked at noon yesterday and ventured to draw its breath,” The Chronicle wrote. “Despite the published prayers of the Health Department for conservation of gauze, the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month.”

But in early December, there was a surge in cases of the illness.

A flag ceremony at a Red Cross Building in Civic Center in San Francisco in November 1918.

Western Neighborhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org/wnp36.01945

The city’s public health director, Dr. William Hassler, believed the resurgence of the disease was due to visitors from outside of San Francisco.

He was also adamant that there was scientific proof that mask-wearing crucially helped slow the increase in confirmed cases. He once again began asking for residents to voluntarily wear masks in public, but many did not. 

“The Anti-Mask League” was formed, with influential residents, a few physicians, and even a member of the Board of Supervisors joining as members.

Armistice Day parade down Market Street in San Francisco on November 11, 1918.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

On January 25, 4,500 people gathered at a roller skating rink for a public event hosted by the league designed to put an end to the law mandating that residents wear masks in public. The league submitted a petition to the city calling for the mask ordinance to end.

“We earnestly pray that the people be granted speedy relief from the burdensome provisions of this measure,” read the submission.

On February 1, the city found the number of infections to have slowed enough to lift the mask order.

But by the end of February 1919, the city’s death count had reached 3,213, nearly doubling from 1,857 in November.

An emergency flu hospital in Civic Center in San Francisco, California, 1918.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco ended up being one of the worst-hit major cities in the US, with the city’s death rate due to the flu and pneumonia sitting at 673 for every 100,000 people.

A boy with his mask pulled down on January 28, 1919 in San Francisco.

Western Neighborhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org/wnp36.01997

Nearly 45,000 people in the city had been infected with the flu by the end of the winter in 1919.

Fast forward to the 2020 COVID-19 public health emergency, and San Francisco is in a similar position as it was in the early fall of 1918.

San Francisco on March 30.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The county was one of six in the Bay Area that entered a shelter-in-place order on March 17 to help curb the spread of the coronavirus disease.

San Francisco’s Marina Green on March 21.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Since then, San Francisco — although being among the cities that public health officials ordered shut down due to the disease — has been thrust into the national spotlight for its proactive measures.

On Friday, the city announced it would start enforcing mask-wearing for when people are in public, specifically when they’re in proximity to essential businesses and other residents.

San Francisco on April 7.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Source: Business Insider

Similar mask-wearing and shutdown mandates are being implemented across the US, spurring protests whose participants argue that their civil liberties are being threatened.

A demonstrator protests coronavirus stay-at-home orders during a “ReOpen Colorado” rally in Denver, Colorado, on April 19.


Some business owners, hit hard by the economic fallout, have also spoken out against the shutdowns.

Top of mind for many is when the shutdown will end and when life can return to normal.

San Francisco on March 30.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Staggered social distancing periods have also been mentioned, or alternating between loosening and tightening restrictions for the public as needed.

San Francisco on April 20.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That’s a feat that San Franciscans during the 1918 pandemic did not comply too well with, which contributed to the city’s high case count.

As much as cabin fever may be setting in for people in the city, San Franciscans can perhaps take a cue from their predecessors that lived through another viral outbreak a century prior and be patient.

Harrison Tucker wears a mask while painting in Alamo Square Park in San Francisco on April 19.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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