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The Anti-Mask League of San Francisco Was Formed to Protest PPE At the Height of the 1918 Flu Pandemic

These New York tram conductors, photographed during the 1918 influenza, don’t seem interested in joining any Anti-Mask League.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

In January 1919, the second wave of the 1918 influenza was rolling through San Francisco. For that reason, putting masks on became again mandatory again in order to prevent the spread of the disease. After professionals and other authorities, the general public understood that it was something that had to be done and eventually got used to them.

“A week ago I laughed at the idea of the mask. I wanted to be independent. I did not realize that the cost of such independence was the lives of others.” local Red Cross chairman John A. Britton told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.

Anyone who went out in public without a mask on was faced with $5 fines by law enforcement officers. There were even some people who were sent off to jail for not obeying the rules.

“John Raggi, arrested on Columbus Avenue, said he did not wear a mask because he did not believe in masks or ordinances, or even jail,” an article in the San Francisco Chronicle read. “He now has no occasion to disbelieve in jails. He is in the city prison.”

When it was declared that the situation was getting better, people stopped wearing those face coverings. In a way, they got a taste of freedom after so many months of having to put a mask on all the time. But, then the second wave of the disease hit the city.

It was around January of that year that the Anti-Mask League was born, a league chaired by Emma Harrington who was a lawyer and San Francisco’s first female voter in 1911.  More than 2000 people attended the inaugural meeting, but city officials didn’t feel intimidated by it.

“We cannot in this matter pay any attention to any public agitators against the mask for the obvious reason that the question is one of public health and not of like or dislike of the mask,” Arthur H. Barendt, president of the San Francisco Board of Health, told the press at that time.

Apparently, the league believed that masks didn’t help the city to flatten the curve so it was pointless to keep them on all the time. Just before health officials issued their second decree, there were 510 new flu cases and 50 deaths. In the end, the league didn’t accomplish anything. Eventually, the city was in a better phase and did away with the mask requirements on February 1.

HT: Mental Floss

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Written by Ketrin Ulbrich

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