Thanksgiving in the Midst of a Pandemic

As we prepare for Thanksgiving tomorrow, let us look back on what it was like in the United States during the last Thanksgiving celebrated during a pandemic. The Spanish Flu was raging in November 1918. They were coming to the end of the worst of the second wave, and like this year, many government leaders and health officials encouraged people to have small Thanksgiving gatherings. Did they listen? What can the Spanish Flu pandemic teach us for Thanksgiving 2020?

Thanksgiving 1918 took place during a deadly pandemic. The pandemic began in February 1918 (possibly as early as December 1917, at Camp Greene, North Carolina) and lasted until April 1920. It infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves. The first wave lasted from March to July 1918 and was relatively mild. The second wave was much deadlier, beginning in August and receding in December. The third wave started in January 1919 and lasted through July. It was less severe than the second wave but still much more deadly than the initial first wave. The fourth wave hit in January 1920 and continued until April of that year. While it was called the Spanish Flu, it is believed that it mutated to become one of history’s most dangerous pandemics in the United States. Due to World War I, many countries engaged in wartime censorship and suppressed reporting of the pandemic; however, newspapers were allowed to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit.

On Thanksgiving 1918, a thankful nation celebrated with particular enthusiasm, though many Americans, like today, lived under various phases of quarantines and face mask orders. Millions mourned loved ones. And health officials in many cities issued the same holiday warning: Stay home and stay safe. As Thanksgiving rolled around, some cities celebrated the relaxation of flu-related restrictions—partly due to opposition campaigns by retailers, theater owners, unions, mass transportation companies, and other economically stressed stakeholders. Washington, Indianapolis, and Oakland, California, had lifted restrictions days before, and San Francisco was on the brink of lifting its mask mandate. In some cities, Thanksgiving rituals brought a welcome sense of normalcy. Many Americans returned to religious services, performed charity work, and went through with planned football games, parties, and performances.

However, not all was well. On November 27, the day before Thanksgiving, St. Louis reported its highest new daily case count since the epidemic began, and Buffalo, New York, reported its largest jump in daily cases since the lifting of its pandemic ban weeks earlier. Both cities subsequently cracked down on public gatherings, limited the number of passengers on streetcars, and ordered those cars to be ventilated and cleaned. The month before, the pandemic was blamed for killing 11,000 in Philadelphia. The epidemic ultimately claimed an estimated 675,000 American lives, probably a tremendous underestimate since it did not include countless deaths involving preexisting conditions. The pandemic was raging in the fall of 1918. Yet on November 28, 1918, the United States celebrated Thanksgiving. In his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson didn’t even mention the flu, which he later contracted himself while in France for the WWI Peace Conference.

COVID-19 is casting its long, persistent shadow over Thanksgiving 2020, but for various reasons, the Spanish flu didn’t have a similar effect in 1918 on Thanksgiving or the subsequent holidays. That likely had consequences later. The Great War had ended two and a half weeks earlier. It appeared to be a good reason for giving thanks. In the minds of many Americans, they had a lot for which to be thankful. The war was over, and they were still alive. This year, we have the defeat of Donald Trump for which to celebrate. A dark period in American history is coming to an end, but I digress. In November 1918, the flu continued to kill people worldwide, but it appeared to be in retreat. By Thanksgiving, people were anxious to forget a pandemic that they didn’t understand in the first place.

COVID-19 and the Spanish flu appear to have at least one thing in common: they both induced certain degrees of denial, but in so many other ways, they are as different as Thanksgiving 1918 and Thanksgiving 2020. The most significant contrast is in ferocity. In October 1918, the flu claimed as many lives as 4,500 in a week, and 13,500 in the September-through-December period in Philadelphia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, just under 2,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the city. In Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds of coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing facilities. The Spanish flu’s favored targets were people 20 to 40 years old. In all, the virus infected 25 percent of Americans. 

Philadelphia’s infamous Liberty Bond Parade of September 28, 1918, was attended by 200,000 people and featured march king John Philip Sousa. It was a major superspreader event, and deaths spiked within 72 hours. On October 3, Pennsylvania ordered all theaters and saloons closed, and Philadelphia added schools and churches to the list. But it was too late: During the week that ended October 19, 4,500 were dead. By the first week in November, the flu virus seemed to be winding down, and even though massive crowds gathered to celebrate the war-ending Armistice on November 11, the aftereffects were not as dire, but the number of cases did rise. In the week that ended November 23, the city did report 103 deaths. That did not stop Thanksgiving.

Just as cases rose after Armistice Day celebrations, they rose again after Thanksgiving. Dallas, Minneapolis, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle saw surges. Omaha relaunched a public health campaign. Parts of Cleveland and its suburbs closed schools and enacted influenza bans in early December. On December 6, the St. Paul Daily News announced that more than 40 Minneapolis schools were closed because of the flu, below the headline “SANTA CLAUS IS DOWN WITH THE FLU.” Health officials asked “moving picture show” managers to exclude children, closed Sunday schools, and ordered department stores to dispense with “Santa Claus programs.” On Christmas Eve, health officials in Nebraska made influenza a mandatory quarantine disease, and fines ranged from $15 to $100 for violations. Approximately 1,000 homes in Omaha were placarded, meaning their occupants could not leave for at least four days after the fever had subsided. By January, influenza fully engulfed the United States in the third wave of the pandemic. The virus spread throughout the winter and spring, killing thousands more. 

During the war, sustaining morale was seen as the most important goal of the government, and that “no bad news allowed” spirit lingered after the war. People had lived through rationing and had watched loved ones die in front of their eyes. Every day already was a hardship experience, and people were reeling on an everyday basis. In short, Americans were ready for a break and were thinking they could finally step back from the height of scarcities. The New York Sunwrote of families welcoming returning military personnel they didn’t know into their homes for dinner.

The flu, however, did not go away. It experienced a resurgence in December, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the first six months of 1919, “influenza” deaths were matching the annual totals for each of 1915, 1916, and 1917. Experts believe that it would not have lasted as long as it did or been as deadly if people had been keeping to themselves. It would be impossible to precisely know what effects mitigation efforts would have had on the flu’s spread. Still, we can see today that in areas where governments imposed greater mitigation efforts, COVID-19 was better contained, and infection rates were lower. Like today, in 1918, the nation had no organized response, leaving it to states and local governments. Some cities in the West did have mask ordinances, as did Atlanta. But when he shut down theaters and saloons, the Pennsylvania health commissioner did not address masks or physical distancing, mentioning only the importance of getting fresh air and exercise.

The response or lack thereof wasn’t surprising since people were apt to view what was happening as a “flu,” with which they were familiar, not some exotic plague. While some Americans don’t know anyone who has been affected by COVID-19, that is becoming a rarer occurrence. COVID has had such an inordinate impact on people of color, the marginalized, the elderly, and Americans do not want to acknowledge the vulnerable in our society. That’s part of the reason Donald Trump was so successful with his followers. Like him, they do not care about others and refuse to wear masks or social distance even though it has been proven effective in preventing the mask wearer from spreading the virus to someone else.

Given that so many fatalities are occurring among people with preexisting conditions, we need to look at what that means for the health of the United States. We would be wise now to turn our attention to fighting the likes of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. The state of American healthcare has proven to be an issue during this pandemic. Rural areas with no hospitals and few doctors in the county are suffering greatly. Poverty and poor health conditions are a significant problem in this country. Rather than merely bracing for the next pandemic, we have numerous public health priorities that need to be addressed.

We do have things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Donald Trump and many of his cronies will be leaving office on January 20. We can still hold out hope that John Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock will win the January 5 runoffs in Georgia and give Democrats control of the Senate. If that happens, we will see the death nail in the coffin of Trumpism, at least for two years. Also, if you are reading this, it means you are alive. We will get through this pandemic, but we need to remain vigilant. That means we need to avoid unnecessary travel and gathering. I know it is disappointing for many Americans, but we can get through this so that we can celebrate many, many more Thanksgivings. The better part of valor is to stay home and stay safe so that we can have more to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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