Masking Wearing and the Flu Pandemic

A police officer removing men from a building in San Francisco for refusing to wear masks.


The Covid-19 pandemic is not the first time in the United States that public health officials encouraged people to wear masks to limit the spread of a deadly virus. In the United States, a surprising number of Americans have been angered by this simple request. This reaction should not be unexpected. Similarly, during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, mask-wearing was also politicized. In desperation, public health officials then turned to various tactics to convince Americans to wear masks.

Punishments ranged from fines to imprisonment in cities. While most punishments for not wearing a mask were fines, prison sentences did occur. One infamous incident in San Francisco, where a special officer hired by the Board of Health to enforce mask-wearing, shot a man who had earlier refused to wear a mask; two bystanders even were hit during the shooting.

In another case in San Francisco, at a boxing match attended by many dignitaries from the city and government, a photographer shot a photo of that night and the well-known individuals present. That photograph led to many officials being shamed for not wearing masks. People who were caught not wearing masks included a congressman, a court justice, a Navy rear-admiral, a health officer, and the mayor. These violations led to fines for these officials and public shaming. Still, none of these individuals were imprisoned as others had been.

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