Same Arguments, Different Century

It’s a good exercise to look back at the influenza pandemic of 1918

By Kellyn Brown

Walking into a gas station in Kalispell last week, all the patrons were wearing masks. By the time I grabbed a six-pack and carried it to the counter, a new set of patrons had arrived and none were wearing masks (one wasn’t wearing shoes either, but that’s another matter).

Masks, as you’ve read on your social media feeds, are a point of contention. That, of course, is an understatement. A piece of cloth covering someone’s face has divided an already divided electorate and put service industry employees in the unenviable position of enforcing a statewide directive that some of their customers believe encroaches on their freedom. Or, as is often the case, those same employees throw up their hands and don’t enforce anything.

The U.S. government and its various federal agencies confused residents by initially telling us not to wear masks — fearing a shortage for frontline workers and not knowing how easily coronavirus spreads — which has made it difficult to convince certain portions of the population that wearing them does any good, even as health officials now plead for everyone to mask up.

I hate wearing a mask as much as the next person and have shuffled through a number of variations in an attempt to find one I can comfortably breathe in and won’t fog up my glasses. I also can’t speak to the effectiveness of putting one on when entering a store on a beer run. But I do so because it’s a state directive. It’s what doctors now recommend. And I want to show respect for workers who otherwise are put in the position of deciding whether to ask me to put a mask on. That may make me a “sheep” or “sheeple” or just a rule follower.

But that doesn’t matter if it allows local businesses to stay open. Already, across the valley, a number of restaurants and offices have temporarily shut down as a result of at least one of their employees testing positive for COVID-19. Shutting down is expensive and deep cleaning costs money.

What if wearing a mask works? What if it prevents just one of those businesses from winding down operations during peak tourism season? Would it then be worth wearing a mask? I think it would, but not everyone agrees. And that’s their prerogative. Law enforcement has made it clear that enforcing the mask mandate is not a top priority. However, local merchants also have the right to refuse service to anyone not following the state order.

As coronavirus has spread and upended our lives — largely making them all worse — it’s a good exercise to look back at the influenza pandemic of 1918. We were in the throes of Word War I at the time, but more service personnel actually died from disease than combat. The deadly flu would persist until 1920, killing 675,000 Americans and more than 50 million worldwide.

Then, like now, people were reluctant to cover their faces. Public service announcements across the country blared: “Wear a Mask and Save Your Life!” Streetcar signs warned: “Spit Spreads Death.” The Red Cross referred to a person who refused to wear one a “dangerous slacker.”

Still, many refused and at once declared mask measures “autocratic” and “unconstitutional.”

It seems times haven’t really changed at all. Instead, we now argue over masks with our keyboards from the comfort of our homes. I just hope those arguments don’t lead to this pandemic lasting as long as the last one.

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