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L.A.’s First Pandemic Christmas

Los Angeles Holiday Shoppers, 1918

Photo from the Los Angeles Times, Nov. 27, 1918. A police officer tries to keep Los Angeles holiday shoppers moving and not crowding.

As December 1918 approached, Los Angeles was eager to celebrate not only the Christmas holidays and the end of World War I (the war had ended that November), but, with declining case numbers, what appeared to be the end of the deadly influenza epidemic (the so-called “Spanish Flu”).

Los Angeles public health officials, led by Dr. L. Milton Powers, however, were not ready to celebrate. Although new cases and deaths were indeed falling, they cautioned that it didn’t mean that the influenza virus had disappeared. They urged the public to do their holiday shopping by telephone. They asked retailers to not hold sales that would draw in crowds of shoppers.

Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Times cheered declining case and death numbers in late November as evidence that the epidemic was coming to an end. Every day the newspaper reported the diminishing numbers. They had been mostly supportive of public health efforts to stem the epidemic across Los Angeles. However, after six weeks of a shutdown and the approaching holiday season, the pro-business newspaper used its editorial page to advocate for health restrictions to be loosened or ended.

Dr. Powers asked the Los Angeles City Council to extend the closure order through the holidays. Business groups pressed hard for the closure order to be either intensified or lifted. The issue made for increasingly contentious council meetings. The Motion Picture Theater Owners’ Association argued that only a full and complete shutdown of almost all businesses could defeat the epidemic and, hopefully, lead to an expedited reopening. They turned their pressure up by threatening legal action against the city and health department if all businesses across the board weren’t closed. On the other hand, prominent business leader D.A. Hamburger (owner of the largest retail store on the West Coast, Hamburger’s Department Store) urged the council to ease all health orders. He was concerned that continuing health restrictions through the holiday season would discourage holiday shopping. He pointed to New York, Chicago, and other cities as fully open for the holiday period and how he took every precaution to safeguard the health of his employees and patrons. Other businesses threatened open defiance. Business operators in San Pedro, alarmed that the city considered any extension of the closure order, declared that they would defy any attempt to keep their businesses closed and remain open and fight the matter out in court.

Dr. L. Milton Powers, Los Angeles Health Officer, 1918

Dr. L. Milton Powers, Chief Los Angeles Health Officer, 1918. He was the 1918 equivalent of 2020's Dr. Barbara Ferrer of the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health.

All this led the Los Angeles City Council, against the advice of city health officials, to back down from any health order extension. Dr. Powers and public health officials, undeterred, continued to urge the public to stay home and minimize the spread of influenza.

Retail stores got busy promoting holiday shopping. They knew that many people simply no longer wished to stay home and were eager to shop.

“From Fourth to Eighth Street, one almost had to elbow his way along. In going that distance, six or seven masks might be encountered, while from fifty to seventy-five people without masks were sneezing and coughing as they hurried along, apparently unmindful of other people’s germs and not stingy with their own.” – LA Times 11/27/18

As the shutdown-weary public burst forth onto the streets of Los Angeles, special police squads had to be deployed into shopping districts to attempt to keep crowds from forming. Public health officials asked grocers to continue offering home delivery through telephone orders. Most grocers declined, citing the service as too expensive.

By the end of November, daily numbers of new influenza cases and deaths in Los Angeles were still falling. Dr. Powers came under increasing pressure to declare the health closure order as no longer necessary. Theaters, churches, schools, dance halls and other places could then reopen, after having been closed for seven weeks.

“Dr. Powers strongly urged, however, that every care be taken against the possible spread of the disease. He advised people to keep out of crowds as much as possible, and to observe other rules against the disease.” – LA Evening Herald 11/30/18

On December 2, Los Angeles public health officials agreed to recommend that the city council lift the closure order. They asked only that infected persons be subject to mandatory quarantine at home. The city council quickly responded to the recommendation by lifting the closure order. They were not, however, so equally eager to order any mandatory quarantine for infected persons.

Influenza, Flu, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10, 1918

How to avoid influenza, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10, 1918.

On December 3, the Los Angeles Board of Education directed that schools be reopened. Dr. Powers urged the board to reconsider and leave schools closed for at least another week “to be on the safe side.” He cautioned against reports of other places returning to full normal and described them as “bunk.” He warned that the rush to reopen schools posed the threat of a new wave of influenza cases.

It did not take long for that prediction to come true. Within a week of schools reopening, the number of new cases among children quickly shot up. Dr. Powers urged the Board of Education to close schools again. The board took that advice and, on December 10, ordered 90,000 Los Angeles school children to again stay home.

Although the sudden rise in new cases among children did not yet similarly occur among adults, the events moved the city council to finally grant Dr. Powers authority to enforce mandatory quarantines.

The action by the city council alarmed Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Woodman. He became concerned that the council might reconsider public health proposals to reinstate a closure order. Holiday shopping was already well underway. He rightly believed that talk of a new closure order would enrage the city’s business community. On December 12, the mayor brought together a new advisory committee of business and civic representatives to discuss proposals for preventing a new surge of influenza. The meeting’s participants naturally rejected talk of closure orders and instead focused on mandatory quarantines as an acceptable option. They also agreed that the wearing of face masks, although voluntary, should be encouraged. As a result of the meeting, a new publicity campaign was shortly thereafter launched to educate and encourage the public to take precautions against influenza infection.

Influenza, Flu, Mask, 1919

From California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, M.D. Influenza: A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 16.

On December 13, Los Angeles School Superintendent, Dr. Albert Shiels, announced a new correspondence study program for school children to begin in January. Los Angeles children had received almost no formal education since the spring. He also kept Los Angeles teachers on the payroll by committing some to supporting the correspondence program and others to doing service work in the community.

By December 18, the number of new influenza cases continued to fall. The Los Angeles Evening Herald declared:

“Unless unforeseen circumstances intervene, influenza in this city will soon be eliminated.”

Nevertheless, that same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles public health officials were allowed to ban Christmas tree celebrations and the incidental crowds drawn to those events.

Excitement for a Christmas ending to the pandemic soon vanished. In the week leading up to Christmas Day, the number of new influenza cases and deaths turned sharply upwards. In the week after Christmas, the number of new cases doubled. As a result of several weeks of a jubilant public throwing public health guidelines to the wind, a new deadly wave of infections had begun, persisting into January. Shutdown-weary Angelenos had been eager to finally break out of their homes to shop and celebrate and gather for the holidays. They were grateful to have survived, not only a terrible world war, but also, up to that point, a terrible pandemic. It was understandable, but it was premature. It was costly. For the entire influenza epidemic episode in Los Angeles, 42 percent of all influenza cases and 38 percent of resultant deaths occurred during December and the following January. More than 1,200 people lost their lives to the virus during this period.

By the following spring of 1919, the influenza epidemic was, for the most part, over. There had been no vaccine to combat it.

Source: Influenza Encyclopedia.


1918 Pandemic in Los Angeles
There are many similarities between L.A.'s last experience with a pandemic a century ago and L.A.'s COVID-19 experience today.