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How Can Chicago Reopen After Coronavirus? Here’s How We Did It After 1918’s Spanish Flu

Here's how Chicago practiced social distancing and then reopened the city during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

A nurse helps a man during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918-1919 at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Wikimedia Commons
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LOGAN SQUARE — Chicago is still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, but as the virus’s spread here slows officials are facing a new question: How does this end?

Christopher Kindell, a postdoctorate fellow at University of Chicago, has studied Chicago’s and Illinois’ response to the Spanish Flu and found parallels — and differences — to the coronavirus pandemic. During the 1918 pandemic, city and state officials shut down businesses, banned gatherings and tried to get sick people to stay home.

Nearly a century later, officials in Chicago and Illinois have employed the same tactics to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Now, as the virus’s growth appears to be slowing here, they’re trying to determine how to end the state shutdown and restart Illinois’ economy.

In 1918, that was done gradually, with harder-hit parts of the city taking longer to see restrictions lifted.

But Kindell said those strict social distancing guidelines — and then the gradual lifting of those measures at the end of the pandemic — appear to have helped Chicago save lives and bounce back better economically than other large cities.

The flu appears to have come to Chicago through sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Kindell said. The station isolated people who were sick and wouldn’t let people who worked or train there leave — but visitors were apparently still allowed to come and go, which is one of the first ways the virus spread to the city.

By the end of September 1918, there were about 260 cases reported in Chicago, Kindell said. Officials knew the virus could become a problem and classified it as a “reportable disease,” meaning if you were diagnosed by a doctor as having it you went on a register.

Seeing the growing number of cases, public health officials launched a health campaign at the end of September and beginning of October, Kindell said. They told Chicagoans to take precautions like carry a handkerchief to sneeze and cough into.

But officials refused to close schools and were slow to take other measures, “hoping the disease would get through Chicago pretty quickly with minimal damage and they wouldn’t have to worry about these initial closures,” Kindell said.

The Influenza Advisory Commission for the state was created on Oct. 11 and the group, along with local public health officials, prohibited public funerals in Illinois and started banning public dancing in dance halls, cabarets and similar places.

They reasoned that when you danced you “would get sweaty and gross,” Kindell said. “It was thought that was how the Spanish Flu could be transmitted from one person to another very, very easily.”

A Liberty Loan Parade was scheduled for Oct. 12; infamously, a similar parade in Philadelphia led to the Spanish Flu exploding in that city in September 1918. Concerned officials in Chicago tried to stop the local parade, but their actions came too late and all they ended up being able to do was tell attendees to take precautions to safeguard their health.

“Obviously this was probably one of the ways in which the disease sort of erupted in Chicago and got bigger than it had been in early October,” Kindell said.

Just days after that, the state’s advisory commission and public health officials closed all theaters, movie houses and night schools for an indefinite period of time. All other types of public gatherings and meetings were prohibited, as well.

But by then, the pandemic was in full force in Chicago. Doctors were seeing as many as 1,200 new cases a day in the city, according to the Influenza Archive.

Only a few places were allowed to stay open, including churches. There’s been some debate as to why churches were allowed to remain open, Kindell said, but it’s possibly because they served as soup kitchens for people in need and meeting places for aid organizations.

Schools remained open, but only under “heavy inspection and surveillance by school nurses,” Kindell said. Nurses were told to stop their day-to-day administrative work and focus on checking students for signs of the flu.

Still, some parents kept their kids out of schools out of fear from the virus, with some reporting attendance as low as 50 percent, Kindell said.

By Oct. 16, the state banned all public gatherings, including debates, banquets and social meetings.

“Oddly enough, though, places that were allowed to remain open were things like saloons, pool halls … and bowling alleys,” Kindell said. “But they were only allowed to remain open if they were ‘properly ventilated,'” which meant they had windows and doors open.

People who violated the health orders were cited, and a few were even arrested, Kindell said. The Influenza Archive reports some people who sneezed and coughed without covering their faces in public were arrested.

By the end of October, it seemed all the social distancing measures had worked, Kindell said. Influenza cases fell rapidly.

That’s when local officials begin to gradually reopen Chicago — but because neighborhoods had fared differently, each region of the city faced a different timeline for the lifting of restrictions.

The reopening of Chicago started on Oct. 29, when the city allowed music and entertainment to resume in restaurants, cafes and hotels, according to the Influenza Archive. Movie houses and theaters were allowed to open on Oct. 30, but only if they were between Howard Street and Diversey Parkway; by the next day, that was expanded to places between Diversey Parkway and 12th Street, and all were allowed to open by Nov. 1.

Public meetings were allowed to resume in some parts of the city on Oct. 31, and they were allowed everywhere in Chicago by Nov. 2.

“Clusters of cases would appear in certain districts at certain times,” Kindell said. “Once those clusters decreased, then that neighborhood could come up for reopening while neighboring neighborhoods … might still be going through a cluster of outbreaks.”

There were still some restrictions even as businesses reopened: Sick people were to stay home, there was to be no crowding and all places had to close by 10 p.m., according to the Influenza Archive.

But by Nov. 4, the city appears to have been “up and running again,” though historians say the pandemic lasted until mid-November, Kindell said.

In all, there was an estimated 38,000 cases of Spanish Flu throughout the city, Kindell said, and Chicago — which, like now, had a population of 2.7 million — fared well and saw fewer deaths compared to other major cities.

Chicago fared better economically, too, Kindell said.

One of the reasons is because Chicago used “non-pharmaceutical” methods of combatting the flu — that is, officials enforced social distancing.

“Chicago, along with a number of other cities like Seattle and Portland and Denver … implemented these non-pharmaceutical interventions at a very early stage compared to other cities,” Kindell said. “Chicago did a relatively good job at not just implementing these measures at an early stage but also making them exceptionally strict and following them to the letter.”

It helped that Chicago kept its social distancing measures in place “for an appropriate amount of time,” Kindell said.

There’s a key difference that complicates things, though: Chicago only had its restrictions in place for about a month and a half during the Spanish Flu pandemic, Kindell said.

In comparison, Illinois started implementing social distancing measures in mid-March and the stay at home order was put into place on March 21. The order is set to last through April, and officials have said they think some measure of social distancing will be needed even into this summer.

“Right now we’re still in the throes of a global pandemic,” Kindell said. “We’re in week four of social distancing recommendations, and so I think right now we just don’t know enough to understand how long this is going to last.

“It’s unchartered territory, at this point. This is not something the United States has actually experienced before.”

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