Video: There were objections to Spanish flu lockdowns too. Bad things happened when critics got their way

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Credit: Topical Press Agency

During the Spanish flu era, officials pushing public health mandates to stop the pandemic in its tracks were met with pushback across the country. From San Francisco to Atlanta, Denver to Cleveland, pockets of opposition sprang up to decry the effects of the restrictions on businesses, religious communities and ordinary people.

The efforts bear a striking resemblance to those taking place today against the stay-at-home orders and other guidelines aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19. The efficacy of the various demonstrations offers a potential warning about how such strong opposition forced cities to roll back orders too quickly and disrupt what public health officials believed was a fairly tractable pandemic.

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[In 1919,] the Anti-Mask League was formed. “People are tired of living under these restrictions, both the wartime restrictions as well as the epidemic control measures,” [historian Alex] Navarro said. “That’s why that general grumbling about wearing masks spilled over into an actual organized protest movement in San Francisco.”


[T]he city’s mayor rescinded the mask order after the persistent protests. In the end, the city recorded 45,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths from fall 1918 to winter 1919.

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