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People hated wearing masks during the last big pandemic, too

If you think we’re somehow unique in how we react to pandemics in a more enlightened age, a stroll through old newspapers can be sobering.

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Clark Goldsberry, a high school teacher at American Fork High School, listens as Nicole Holley and others question him on why he wears a mask outside of the Utah County Administration Building in Provo on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. “If you think we’re somehow unique in how we react to pandemics in a more enlightened age, a stroll through old newspapers can be sobering,” writes Jay Evensen in the Deseret News Opinion section.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — History may not repeat itself exactly, but this pandemic has some verses that sound an awful lot like those heard a century ago, when the misnamed Spanish influenza raged.

If you could hop aboard a time machine and visit a meeting of the Weber County boards of health, Ogden city leaders and a committee of business leaders in early December 1918, you would hardly notice you had gone anywhere.

As the meeting droned on, a railroad conductor stood up and “said he objected to Bolshevik ‘hold up’ methods being used on the board,” according to a report in the Dec. 10, 1918, Ogden Standard (made available by newspapers.com). Specifically, he didn’t want to be told to wear a mask any longer.

As the newspaper paraphrased it, he said “... if the mask regulation was not abolished, the streetcar conductors would not come to work in the morning.”

His wasn’t the only such opinion. In the end, the group passed a motion “banishing the mask regulation” immediately. 

This, despite the group also imposing restrictions on travel from Salt Lake City to Ogden because Salt Lake’s leaders had lifted a ban from public assemblies at bars, theaters, restaurants and virtually every other place except schools and dance halls. 

“Nothing in the wide world nor on the deep blue sea had caused the lifting of the ban ... but the pressure of business interests more keenly desirous of seeing the small town folks crowd to the capital city and buy their Christmas gifts,” some in attendance said.

If you think we’re somehow unique in how we react to pandemics in a more enlightened age, a stroll through old newspapers can be sobering. The Bolshevik reference in Ogden wasn’t unique. Neither are today’s cries that masks are unconstitutional. 

The flu of 1918-19 came in waves, and it killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. That’s many more than the nearly 160,000 the novel coronavirus has killed so far, but then we are only in the first wave.

Comparing the mortality rates of pandemics caused by different diseases is useless. However, it is noteworthy that the high mortality rates of a century ago didn’t lead to much different behavior than we are seeing today.

A recent meeting of the Utah County Commission, at which people packed themselves shoulder to shoulder to protest Gov. Gary Herbert’s order that everyone involved with public schools, from teachers and administrators to students, wear masks this fall, is a case in point. It showed that, despite all the scientific progress, average people haven’t come very far in a century.

Utah’s surge in new COVID-19 cases appears to be waning, and medical experts say Salt Lake County’s mask mandate has a lot to do with it. Dr. Russell Vinik, University of Utah Health chief medical operations officer, said a few weeks ago he believed the mandate made a drastic difference in the county. Unlike a century ago, the mandate has been pushed by local businesses, many of which no longer allow customers to enter without a mask.

It’s worth noting that Utah wasn’t the biggest hot spot for anti-mask sentiments a century ago. In a report this week, The New York Times noted that an “Anti-Mask League” was formed in the Bay Area in 1918, founded by a political opponent of the mayor of San Francisco. Some people in California were seen cutting holes in their masks so they could smoke cigars. Others put masks on their dogs or covered the grills of their cars with them in mock compliance with the law.

At a league meeting, the San Francisco Board of Health was called “outrageous, arrogant and autocratic” for imposing a mask rule that interfered with the “sacred rights of the people.”

As usual, the disease of the day paid little mind to their discontent and kept spreading.

Meanwhile, 102 years ago, a group of business leaders, politicians and medical professionals also met in Salt Lake City. Four doctors spoke in favor of wearing masks. They were drowned out by most of the others in attendance, some of whom said masks trapped dirt and kept people from breathing fresh air. 

No, history doesn’t repeat perfectly. But when it comes to pandemics, who needs a time machine?