Los Angeles leaders didn’t wait for the contagion to arrive. With reports of infections overwhelming Eastern cities, officials outlawed public gatherings. Their goal was to minimize the spread of disease, while also avoiding panic.
Now, Los Angeles is among the cities battling a record number of new coronavirus cases as the worst pandemic since 1918 ravages the United States.
In 1918, the Los Angeles Times editorial board hoped to ease tension, reminding readers, “Don’t get rattled. It is well to keep soberly in mind at this time the fact that fear kills almost as many people every year as disease.”
For Juan Rincon, fear proved more dangerous than the illness itself.
Rincon, a Boyle Heights fishmonger, received a call from his friend Eva Costello on Oct. 19 of that year. Rincon mentioned that he was feeling unwell and worried that he was infected.
Costello went in search of a doctor — only to return to Rincon’s home to find him lying in a pool of blood with a revolver in his hand. Investigators reported that Rincon had opted to end his own life rather than lose it to the flu.
After the flu pandemic’s first wave in the spring, a second, more deadly wave had been birthed in the harbors of Boston in the fall. Unlike the first wave, this new strain affected young adults, and outbreaks could no longer be confined to the country’s military camps.
In early October — with only 55 cases of the flu reported across Los Angeles — city health officials played down the severity of the illness on the West Coast. The head of the National Association of Motion Picture Industries called for a halt to all film releases after Oct. 15 because of the pandemic, but industry insiders closer to Hollywood felt differently.
“The situation regarding influenza is nothing like as serious here as it is in the east,” Tally’s Broadway Theatre owner T.L. Tally told the Times, “but should local health officials ask the picture houses to close, I am sure the managers would do anything the officials desire.”
Meanwhile, city health officials faced pressure related to an upcoming mass rally intended to raise funds to support the war effort. With just nine days left to reach its quota, Los Angeles was $27 million behind in its Liberty Loan fundraising. The upcoming Liberty Day celebration was intended to bridge that gap — even if doing so would doom the city to a deadly outbreak.
City leaders met Oct. 10 and made the tough decision to postpone Liberty Day events and close all schools, churches and places of amusement. This included the city’s 83 movie theaters.
“That we would be compelled sooner or later to place a ban upon public gatherings is certain. Therefore it is the best judgement to do it at once, if by so doing we may stamp out the disease in a few days,” said Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Woodman. “By the action of the health department, we may be saved untold losses in life and endless discomforture.”
(In fact, Philadelphia’s refusal to cancel its Liberty Loan parade in late September led to 1,000 deaths in 10 days, making the city one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.)
Despite the lack of any public fundraising events, Los Angeles managed to rally in the final moments and exceed its Liberty Loan goal by an estimated $3.5 million.
With 307 cases of new infections reported across the city, John Cawley, chancellor for the diocese of Los Angeles issued a statement to all Catholics that no services would be held: “The people are exhorted to offer up prayers in their own homes to Almighty God to take away the epidemic that is at present so seriously threatening the community.”
Not everyone was so respectful of the new health precautions.
In Los Angeles, where theater is a religion and religion is theater, these two groups included the city’s loudest critics of the order to shutter. According to N. Pieter M. O’Leary writing for Southern California Quarterly, “The most vocal opponent to the partial closing law was the Los Angeles Theater Owner’s Association,” which “repeatedly petitioned the city council to repeal the partial closing law.”
The association’s president estimated that local theaters had lost $1 million in revenue after the city’s order to close went into effect.
As Los Angeles City Council debated theater owners, a local congregation of Christian Scientists defied the city mandate and attempted to reopen church services in early November. This led to police interrupting ceremonies and arresting four church leaders as 500 congregants crowded outside the house of worship.
Fortunately for the people of Los Angeles, these two groups were the only major organizations to openly oppose the city’s effort to curb the spread of infection. Restrictions were lifted across the city on Dec. 3.
San Francisco, which had taken a much more relaxed approach to pandemic protocols, was forced to institute a full masking order the month before, leading to an avalanche of public opposition. With a healthy dose of caution balanced with restraint, Los Angeles managed to successfully navigate the second and deadliest wave of the 1918 flu.
“The swift response of the Los Angeles city officials in initiating measures to restrict the spread of the influenza virus saved the city from the astronomical infection rates experienced in San Francisco,” O’Leary wrote for Southern California Quarterly. “Acting on October 11 to invoke a partial closing ban, combined with the public acceptance and the fortunate late schedule of the Liberty Loan Drive, the city was able to avert the crisis.”
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