Holiday gatherings devastated Seattle during 1918 flu

After five weeks of lock down restrictions, the city thought it had beaten the virus. It hadn’t.

COVID-19 is surging in across the US, with seven new record highs for infection set over nine days. The pattern of infection follows a similar pattern from the 1918 flu, when relaxed restrictions spurred a deadly wave of infections over a century ago. (California State Library; Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The novel coronavirus is spreading exponentially in the United States. It is difficult to grasp the shape of such a spike, but suffice to say that it is sobering and downright terrifying because, after nine months, we don’t know how bad it can get. In recent weeks, we have shattered previous records for confirmed cases. Some experts estimate that, without new restrictions, there could be 100,000 additional deaths between now and when Joe Biden takes office in January.

Even in Washington, where we have been more careful than many states, the number of cases is ticking upwards, a discouraging sign that feels as if progress against the virus is being undone by our own impatience and frustration with the restrictions we’ve been living with this past year.

On Thursday night, Gov. Jay Inslee, his wife, Trudi, by his side, pleaded with Washingtonians to avoid holiday gatherings. With Thanksgiving two weeks away, the temptation for people to gather indoors this holiday season might prove too tempting, pushing the pandemic’s third wave to renewed heights here. Celebrate remotely, they implored. Further COVID-19 restrictions might be coming as soon as next week. Some might not be satisfied sharing turkey via Zoom.

Read Crosscut's latest reporting on coronavirus in King County.

In some respects we’re experiencing a replay of 1918, when people in Seattle quickly grew tired of restrictions related to containing the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic. In a way, you can’t blame them. Before the flu, the public was already under heavy burdens. The U.S. was fighting a world war when the virus broke out and swept military camps. (The war mobilization helped spread the flu, but also helped fight; the Red Cross, for example, was already mobilized.) Rationing staples, like meat and wheat, tested people’s dietary habits; in Puget Sound, prohibition restrictions were extended by the military to keep soldiers and sailors out of saloons. Parties and balls had been canceled to conserve for the war effort. Also, prices were high — landlords profiteered on rent, the cost of food spiked. Even those not inclined to sacrifice were squeezed. And, of course, the public read in the newspaper every day of the slaughter in Europe and of their sons who perished on the Western Front.

People bristled when the flu arrived in Seattle with sailors and soldiers shipped here for training or stationing. City officials decided to clamp down with protocols familiar today: face masks, social distancing, the closure of all businesses, save ones serving essential needs of food and drugs, or workplaces devoted to the war effort, like the shipyards. The lockdown of the city was pitched as helping win the war, beating the Germans and the Kaiser. In announcing the restrictions, in early October, the Seattle Star trumpeted on its front page, “If it helps win the war, the Star is for it!”

Most people went along. Abiding by the onerous restrictions was seen as being patriotic.

But the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, changed everything. People could not be stopped from massing in the streets to hail the end of the war and hardship. On Nov. 12, after five weeks, Seattle decided the restrictions were over. They thought about continuing the mask mandate but were overruled by state health officials. The Seattle Times declared victory over the flu. “Epidemic Virtually Over,” a headline ran. Stores could be open 9 to 5 again, school would restart, theaters, billiard parlors and dance halls would reopen.

The five weeks of tough restrictions, it was believed, had worked. Flu cases were down significantly. Just like the war, the battle with influenza was won.

But the celebration was premature. In the wake of lifting restrictions, people celebrated victory, large gatherings for war bond drives started up again, people came together for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Cases again began to rise. Of the roughly 5,000 or so Washingtonians who died from the flu in 1918-19, half of them died from January 1919 forward — proof that the lockdown had a dramatic dampening effect of the disease, but that the epidemic was not over. It resurged once people returned to their usual social habits. There was no immunity conferred by special occasions.

Impatience, misplaced optimism, a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, skepticism of authority and public health pronouncements — all played into the public largely discarding what kept them safe.

There were tragic consequences.

The 1919 Stanley Cup hockey finals were being played in Seattle that March. The local team, the Seattle Metropolitans, were tied 2-2-1 with the Montreal Canadiens when a flu outbreak swept through both teams. The Canadiens’ star, Joe Hall, collapsed on the ice, was hospitalized and died in early April. His coach and many of his teammates wound up in the hospital, too. The Cup finals were canceled with no winner declared.

History tells us there is risk in celebrating too soon or acting out of shutdown fatigue. Excess death rates for the country suggest that the influenza epidemic persisted through the winter of 1920, and for many people it had lasting effects. The coach of the Canadiens, George Kennedy, caught the flu in Seattle and, as with many, it turned into pneumonia. He recovered somewhat, but was never the same. He died a few years later.

There’s a lesson in this for all of us today.

Restrictions, masks, stay-at-home orders: Despite spiking COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and a death rate back up to nearly 1,000 per day, we all yearn for normalcy. The economic impact on families, the delayed education of our children, the idea of a Thanksgiving without family, this all tests us, as does the anxiety about the months and years ahead. When will a vaccine get here? Will my job survive? Will downtown Seattle survive? The angst over who will be in charge of handling the government response has kept many of us awake at night.

We know we will get through it, but when and in what kind of shape are the unanswered questions. Pretending it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter amounts to a kind of mass murder when such deaths can be prevented by our sacrifices.

In these times we all have had to turn inward, but solitude and introspection should not give way to an abiding selfishness or lack of care for our neighbors. If it does, we’re no better than, well, a deadly virus ourselves. As they learned in World War I, the virus was an enemy on a domestic battlefield. It was hard to defeat. Premature victory — or recklessness — could be very costly.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.