The Anti-Mask League Of 1919: The Anti-Masker Movement That Cost The Pandemic Thousands Of Lives

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(California State Library)

In 1918, the most deadly outbreak of influenza of the 20th century killed nearly 50 million people across the world and around 675,000 people in the United States. Ordinances aimed at keeping people safe varied from state to state, but the most prominent law of the era was the order to wear masks outside the home to prevent spreading the disease. Most people followed the rules and wore masks, but a group known as the Anti-Mask League argued that such orders were a violation of privacy and civil liberties.

San Francisco, Always Ahead Of The Curve

When the flu of 1918 broke out, one of the first cities to adopt mask laws was San Francisco. By October 1918, the city had 2,000 cases, leading the Board of Health to ban get-togethers. Schools and theaters were closed, and people were asked to avoid crowds of all kinds.

By October 25, San Francisco passed an ordinance that required everyone in the city to wear a mask every time they ventured out in public or gathered in groups of two or more. The masks could only be removed for the purpose of eating, and those who defied the ordinance were charged with disturbing the peace. It worked: Nearly 80% of the city's population followed the ordinance, and the rate of infection in the city soon flattened.