Tag Archives: Spanish flu

Dining during an epidemic: San Francisco

After spending time isolated or constrained in any way people tend to become impatient and want to break loose. That’s what happened in San Francisco during the “Spanish” flu of 1918, especially as the number of cases began to decline.

It was understandable, especially when World War I ended. Everyone wanted to celebrate. Unlike most U.S. cities, San Francisco – with about 500,000 residents — was a city with a flourishing nightlife. Restaurants remained open throughout, even in October when flu ravaged the city, but the music and dancing that was often featured was banned when the number of cases rose sharply in the middle of October. Solely for the week ending October 26, reported cases had reached 8,682.

Because of the increase in cases, the city ordered all waiters and bartenders to wear masks [see above October 27 advertisement], shortly thereafter urging everyone to wear them. But then the number of cases began to decline. For the week ending November 9 they were down to 2,200. Although that seems like quite a lot, San Franciscans were beginning to relax.

On Armistice Day, November 11, the city went wild. In a story headlined “San Francisco Romps Through Greatest Joyfest World Has Ever Known,” the Chronicle reported that hundreds of thousands had poured into the streets parading with noise makers, spontaneous singing, even improvised costumes. The city lifted the flu ordinance that had canceled music and dancing. But whether they had music or not, restaurants and bars were packed. Glamour spots such as Tait’s, the St. Francis Hotel, and the Palace Hotel [shown above] overflowed as did the non-glamourous eatery Coffee Dan’s.

Oddly enough, it appears that despite the overflow crowds in the streets, bars, and restaurants, a surge in flu cases did not occur. On November 21 the Board of Health authorized the removal of masks with a whistle blast at noon. People drank toasts in hotels and restaurants, while others crowded into ice cream shops. On November 25 the city declared the epidemic officially ended. People planned for Thanksgiving as usual and looked forward to the Christmas season.

But it wasn’t over. With war’s end, troop ships began returning to the city. Among the troops were enough new cases that on December 7 the mayor reinstituted the wearing of masks. This time most people ignored the order. Merchants hoping for a strong shopping season wanted the threat downplayed. The masking order was lifted 11 days later, even as cases continued to rise. On a single day, December 30, 540 new flu cases and 31 related deaths were reported. Then came . . . New Year’s Eve.

As was true on November 11, there was no stopping the celebrations. Packed trains brought revelers from neighboring towns and states where wartime alcohol bans were still in effect. San Francisco’s hotels were booked, its restaurants fully reserved. The next day the Examiner reported that the celebration was the “Greatest in History of Bay Region,” calling it a “Victory New Year’s Eve” with thousands from out of town. It was almost as if “the whole Pacific Coast and interior neighboring states sent their quotas,” said the Examiner. Among the crowds were many thousands of soldiers and sailors. Hotel dining rooms were full. The Palace had three orchestras, as did Tait’s and Techau Tavern, each of which took 1,500 reservations. The States, Portola [1918 advertisement], Solari’s, and the Odeon [1918 advertisement] were also packed and the same was true in the Latin quarter and other neighborhoods. Dancing continued until 5 a.m.

By January 8, 2,969 new cases had been reported just since the start of the new year. Two days later a new masking order was issued by the mayor who told the newspapers, “After San Francisco had successfully stamped it out the infection was brought to us once more by persons coming here from other cities.” It wasn’t until March 1919 that the city’s death rate returned to its usual level.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, waiters/waitresses/servers

Dining during an epidemic

1918 was an extremely challenging year for restaurants. As if coping with the (so-called) “Spanish” flu weren’t bad enough, there were food shortages and rationing due to WWI, a shortage of employees, and looming national prohibition of alcohol.

And yet the proprietors of Gailey’s Lunch Room in Chicago look quite content in September of that year. Only six days later, on September 24, a headline in a Chicago newspaper would read “Influenza Hits City.” Then on Oct. 1 a story titled “Spreading Rapidly” reported that 372 cases had been identified in the past 24 hours. On Oct. 3 another story appeared warning Chicagoans that if they coughed or sneezed while on the street, they should expect a policeman to tap them on the shoulder and ask if they had a handkerchief.

Before it ended the Spanish flu, and its associated pneumonia, would kill as many as 675,000 Americans – many in the prime of life, including more soldiers than died in combat. The Gaileys, however, survived the epidemic and were still operating their lunch room in 1920.

All over the country municipal authorities enacted measures intended to halt the spread of the flu. Most of the orders and bans issued by cities were aimed at reducing congestion, particularly in downtown areas. They could range from staggering closing times in stores and offices to limit crowding on public transportation to completely shutting down businesses. Spitting on the street could bring a fine in Seattle. Shaking hands was advised against in New York City where the death rate recorded for week three of the epidemic was 1,972. As the flu spread, many theaters, pool halls, bowling alleys, ice cream parlors, and soda fountains across the country were summarily closed for the indefinite future. Some cities asked residents to stay away from downtown at night. In some places, public funerals were not permitted, courts were suspended, schools were closed, and sporting events and meetings were canceled.

Restaurants were sometimes ordered to close early, but they were not generally shut down unless they persistently violated the more stringent health department rules being handed down. Unlike now, when going out to eat is often regarded as a leisure activity, restaurants and lunch rooms of the early 20th century were primarily seen as essential services for people living in rooming houses, those working in central business districts, and transients. In Alliance, Nebraska, on October 20, 1918, when the city was placed under quarantine and patrolled by Home Guards, and all businesses were closed, restaurants — the one exception — remained open.

However, restaurants had to adapt to new health department laws. The most common one across the country was that all dishes, glasses, and silverware had to be sterilized by immersion in scalding hot water. Rather surprisingly, this had not previously been normal practice. Nor had the use of glass covers for food on display.

Other practices varied. In New Orleans and Fort Wayne IN, and probably other cities, restaurant workers were required to wear masks. New Orleans restaurant workers were supplied with only one mask, which was to be soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes each evening and hung to dry for the next day’s use.

Denver CO and Duluth MN were among the cities that ordered patrons to be given extra space. Duluth’s ordinance stated “That restaurants, cafes and eating houses shall be limited to accommodate one person to each 20 square feet of floor space.” Denver restaurant proprietors were not allowed to continue the practice of closing off part of the restaurant and seating all the patrons in one area. At the end of October, when Seattle officials ordered all non-essential employees to stay home from work, they considered further limiting the number of people who could be admitted to restaurants. At that time Seattle also required restaurants to leave doors open for ventilation. Because of the ban on overcrowding, patrons of some restaurants in Washington, D.C., were forced to wait in lines outside.

What restaurants could serve also came under scrutiny. Some cities did not allow restaurants to operate bars, or to serve alcohol at all, presumably because it encouraged congregating and lingering. It’s a puzzle to me why in Harrisburg patrons could not simply order pie and ice cream unless it was preceded by a regular meal. Maybe it was deemed too frivolous and a waste of space that could be occupied by serious eaters.

How effective all these measures were is unknown, although progress in restaurant sanitation was made. The sterilization rule was surely an advance over earlier dishwashing methods, as were glass cases.

It is also unknown how many restaurants suffered financially or closed during the months of 1918 that the flu raged in the U.S.A. Other than Rippeteau’s in Denver and White Way Drug Store in Tampa [above], in my fairly lengthy search I found no additional restaurants advertising that they were safe. It seems as though only a few places acknowledged publicly that anything abnormal was happening, perhaps because no one wanted to focus on the situation any more than they had to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under restaurant issues, sanitation