1918 Spanish Flu: What happened when restrictions were lifted?

Posted at 6:31 PM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 19:31:44-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — More than 100 years ago another pandemic was taking place. The Spanish Flu had killed thousands and infected many others across the nation. Omaha was a city hit hard by it, but eventually restrictions were lifted, when cases started to decline. But the opposite of what everyone hoped for started to happen, causing some concern for our current day situation.

“I mean it’s a different pandemic but we’ve kind of been through this before,” said David Bristow of History Nebraska.

The Spanish Flu spread just like COVID-19. The first cases were reported in the beginning of October 1918.

Restrictions were put into place shortly after. Theaters, schools, and restaurants closed, and people were encouraged to stay home.

“By the end of October 1918, people tired of the restrictions,” said Bristow.

Bristow says once cases and deaths started dropping, restrictions were lifted on November 1st, 1918. People were encouraged to follow social distancing, and places like theaters shouldn’t be running at full capacity.

“But immediately the theaters were full and people were going out to restaurants and people started behaving as if everything was back to normal. Then there was a big celebration on November 11th, for Armistice Day, the end of WWI, and the cases started going up again,” said Bristow.

After that spike, local health commissioner E.T. Manning considered restrictions again.

“Once you have loosened the restrictions you have a very hard time psychologically trying to get people to accept them again,” said Mary Lyons-Carmona of the History Department at UNO.

Lyons-Carmona says Manning faced political fallout from that idea, and therefore chose to not put restrictions back in place.

“None of the politicians wanted to be the bad guys and say, 'Nope, we have to go back because we’re seeing a surge in deaths,” said Lyon-Carmona.

One thing that did change was ordinances, passed in January 1919. It fined people $15 to $100 for leaving their homes during a quarantine.

“$15 doesn’t sound like much in today’s money but that would be a considerable threat for somebody in 1918,” said Bristow.

Historians agree: When places open up, capacity rules need to be enforced. Social distancing is a must, and things like masks which were frowned upon back in 1918, are still necessary.

“If you’re saving someone’s life, a little discomfort is worth that,” said Lyons-Carmona.

Nearly 1,000 people in Omaha died from the Spanish flu. Lyons-Carmona says Manning, who was frustrated from not being able to put restrictions back in place, didn’t classify all the deaths as flu-related. Instead some were as a result of fever or a severe cold, leaving some to wonder how many more people actually died from the virus in Omaha.