The 1918 Pandemic in San Francisco: Who Was That Masked Man!?

High noon. November 21, 1918. A blaring whistle heard throughout the city announces the Great Unmasking. Thousands of citizens flood outdoors for the occasion, and the masks fly off in unison. To shed them before noon is to break the law requiring everyone to wear facial coverings in public to stop the so-called Spanish flu – and the police are there to enforce it. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “the sidewalks and runnels {storm drains} were strewn with the relics of a torturous month” despite urgings from the Health Department to maintain face coverings. As celebrations continue and residents flock to theaters, restaurants and other public spaces, city officials will soon learn their problems are far from over.



“Please, take one. They’re free.” San Francisco Red Cross volunteers doing their civic duty on the streets of San Francisco.


It is an “only in San Francisco” story. In no other city is the face mask more embraced by government officials during the Pandemic. Nowhere is the compliance more accepted. And nowhere is the compliance more conspicuously flaunted.



San Francisco Examiner, 1918




Two months earlier, The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the disease is carried to San Francisco by a man returning from Chicago on September 23, 1918. The Spanish flu is already national news, and local authorizes are quick to hospitalize him and quarantine his house. But a little more than two weeks later, there are 169 cases; then a jump to 2000 the following week. The pandemic is here. Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph huddles with business leaders and the Board of Health headed by Dr. William C. Hassler, the local Dr. Fauci of his day. After heated debate, which include behind-closed-door airing of fears that a general closure will precipitate widespread panic, the group issues a directive on October 18.


> All public and private schools classes are suspended.

> Places of “public amusement” are closed. The main intent is movie theatres and dance venues. There is already a voluntary sharp decline in attendance, and proprietors support the official action as a way to stem the epidemic and get back to normal. Public dancing at clubs and halls is very popular at the time. Authorities are more worried about the spread of the disease while spooning cheek to cheek than sitting next to a stranger at a theater.

> A ban on lodge meetings. This is age of private social/fraternal clubs. Probably half the population of the city are active members of one more or organizations based on religion, ethnicity, or shared ideas. A get-together may well include a dance band. The ordinance also covers union meetings. San Francisco is a “union town.”

There is no effort to close churches, offices, and places of business. But a mask becomes mandatory for most enterprises serving the public, such as barbers, hotel and rooming house employees, bank tellers, druggists, and store clerks. Street cars must keep all windows open except during rain. Liberty Loan fund drives to raise money for the war effort and official public meetings are allowed to continue with safeguards and extra sanitation. The public is strongly urged to wear masks in public.



Prominent San Francials, mainly judges, show off mask attire. Dr. William Hassler is on the top row, second from left.



Open-air police court being held in Portsmouth Square, 1918. To prevent crowding indoors, San Francisco judges often hold sessions outdoors. 


A week later, when mask compliance appears to be less than expected, face coverings became mandatory “in public or when in a group of two or more, except at mealtime.”


With the nation engaged in World War I at the time, donning a mask is quickly equated with an act of patriotism, and any refusal  can evoke accusations of being a “slacker” –  meaning a failure to do one’s part in the Great War. City officials estimate that four out of five are complying with the law. But some are opposed, and some of those adamently.


San Francisco citizens face the long arm of the law for mask violations


October 27: Police arrest 110 people for failure either to wear or to comply with an order to keep their masks properly adjusted. Each is charged with “disturbing the peace” and given a $5 ($80) fine, with the money donated to the Red Cross. 9 troublesome scofflaws are sentenced to short terms in the county jail.

October 28: another 50 violators arrested and 7 of those are accessed fines of $10 apiece; 5 go to jail.

Arrests continue in the following days, with the majority receiving small fines but a few sentenced to short stints in jail. The Chief of Police openly complains that he might quickly run out available cell space. As the days roll on and more arrests are made, the city holding pen becomes increasingly crowded, and courts frantically try to clear cases.








Overall, the public does comply, including at the huge Armistice Parade on November 11 where newsreel films of celebrations ending the War show virtually everyone with facial covering. At that point, flu cases in San Francisco are down. Public health officials recommend reopening the city on November 21. That was the day of the Grand Unmasking.

But cases surge again, and Dr. Hassler tries to re-institute the masking ordinance. City officials vote down his proposal on December 19. Flu cases and deaths continued to increase. On January 10, 1919, with 600 new cases reported in the city,  the Board of Supervisors decide to return to mandatory masking.

This time, there is more resistance to the order. Enter the Anti-Mask League, which holds a mid-January rally at the Dreamland Rink attended by 4,000-5,000 protestors where speakers question if the pandemic is really as bad as officials say. Isn’t this more like a normal cold and flu season? We’ve had years of wartime restriction, people complain, and we’ve had enough. The uprising leads to Dr. Hassler being harassed — in one case someone sends him an explosive package, which does not detonate.




Even the leadership that mandates the law are growing weary. Both Dr. Hassler and Mayor Rolph are photographed maskless in public. The San Francisco Chronicle, a mask champion, comes out against the ordinance. On February 1, the order is again rescinded. By that time, the city case load is receding. Masks will not appear again in San Francisco en masse for almost a century.

The epidemic brings some 45,000 cases of influenza to San Francisco and kills over 3,000 residents in the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919. At the time, the city is reported as suffering the most of all major American urban centers. With more complete and accurate data today, we now know that San Francisco fared slightly better. Still, the city’s total death toll due to influenza and pneumonia during the epidemic was a near per capita national high.

Early in the pandemic, San Francisco mobilizes for action in front of City Hall


Terry Hamburg, Director, Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *