Covering Covid: Backlash : Embedded A small but vocal minority of people are pushing back against public health measures experts say are life-saving. Turns out this is not the first time Americans have resisted government measures during a pandemic with lives at stake.
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Covering Covid: Backlash

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Covering Covid: Backlash

Covering Covid: Backlash

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

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MCEVERS: Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR. This week in Michigan, the way some people are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic got even more political.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us in. Let us in. Let us in.

MCEVERS: Angry protesters stood in front of the Statehouse in Lansing and yelled, let us in. Some of them were part of a far-right militia. Some were carrying semi-automatic rifles. And they were protesting the way Michigan's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has handled the crisis. She was about to extend a state of emergency. Protesters said they were against the state of emergency and against stay-at-home orders. They held signs like, you're killing small business, and, tyrants get the rope. One protester told a reporter coronavirus is just like the flu, which isn't true. Another made fun of social distancing rules.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: How did they come up with this number of 6 feet? I think they just pulled it out of their rear ends. Maybe it's 5. Maybe it's 3 1/2. Maybe it's 8. I don't know. But why 6? Michiganders are being polite for now, but not much longer.

MCEVERS: The protesters started outside, but, eventually, they pushed their way into the Capitol building. State Senator Dayna Polehanki tweeted a picture of armed men on a balcony in camo with big guns. Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us, she wrote. Some of my colleagues who own bulletproof vests are wearing them. Protesters yelled in the faces of masked police officers and at reporters.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We did check with state police, and they said that it is legal for protesters to open carry in the Capitol.

MCEVERS: Police did not let the protesters onto the House floor, but they did let them move around the halls, which, of course, led a lot of people to wonder what police would have done if the protesters weren't mostly white.

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MCEVERS: We should say these protesters are a very small minority in Michigan. Polls show that a majority of people in the state support Governor Whitmer. But these protesters are fired up. And if last week is any indication, they're not just going to pack up and go home. Michigan is one of the states that has been hardest hit by this virus. Nearly 4,000 people have died there. All over the country people are dying, and some people are pushing back against public health measures experts say are needed to keep them from dying.

If this all feels so 2020, turns out it's not the first time people in our country have resisted these measures in a pandemic when lives are at stake. One of our NPR colleagues will tell us how that turned out after this break.

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MCEVERS: Hey. We're back. And today, we're going to talk to one of our colleagues.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: I'm Tim Mak. I'm a Washington investigative correspondent for NPR.

MCEVERS: Tim Mak is also an EMT who has been volunteering at coronavirus testing sites during the pandemic. He, of course, wears a mask when he's doing that, and he also wears one when he's out in public doing regular stuff. So he was struck the other day when he saw a mention online about a group from a hundred years ago called the Anti-Mask League.

MAK: And I had never heard of it before.

MCEVERS: Anti-Mask League - yeah, I haven't heard of it either.

MAK: The Anti-Mask League. And I thought, oh, well, that's interesting. So I went to Google it. And it's a Friday night. I'm in a pandemic. I got nowhere to go. So I end up (laughter) - I ended up writing, like, a 30-tweet thread (laughter) on the Anti-Mask League of 1918, 1919.

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MCEVERS: In case you haven't heard, a lot of people have been making comparisons between the pandemic we're in now and the one from about a hundred years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is where Tim's story starts - San Francisco, October 1918. The first case of flu had just shown up about a month before, but by October, the number of flu cases was rising fast into the thousands. So the board of health closed amusement parks and schools and prohibited dances and other social gatherings, and barbers, hotel workers, bank tellers and other people who served the public were required to wear masks.

Cases kept going up, though. And, eventually, all people were ordered to wear a mask. The Red Cross sold masks for 10 cents, or they told people they could make them out of gauze and dip them in alcohol or boil them for 10 minutes each night. The Red Cross took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that said, wear a mask and save your life. Doctors wear them, the ad went on. Those who do not wear them will get sick. The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask is now a dangerous slacker.

People were fined, arrested and jailed for not wearing masks. A public health officer actually shot and wounded a man who refused to wear a mask. For the most part, though, people complied.

MAK: And at first, the general population is adhering to these guidelines. And, you know, they see an initial decline, right?

MCEVERS: After a few weeks, there were only a handful of new cases.

MAK: So you get into November. Public health officials start saying, we want to reopen the city.

MCEVERS: Sirens wailed and church bells rang as people took off their masks at the same time on the same day. After four weeks of muzzled misery, the Chronicle wrote, San Francisco, quote, "unmasked at noon yesterday, and the sidewalks were strewn with the relics of a torturous month."

MAK: And these residents were so relieved that this first wave was over that they rushed out to entertainment venues. They had been denied that joy, that pleasure for a long time.

MCEVERS: Right.

MAK: And they rushed out together. That was immediately, of course, followed by a second wave of a pandemic.

MCEVERS: Cases started going up again - not as many as before, but still, the city's public health officer, a man named William Hassler, said people should practice social distancing and they should wear masks again. But many people didn't want to.

MAK: The second wave was different. People were frustrated about being hassled about masks. And so most citizens of San Francisco refused to wear masks. Ninety percent of them refused to wear masks.

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MCEVERS: Even the Chronicle questioned whether the death rate was high enough to warrant remasking. The paper worried it would only, quote, "increase the scare."

MAK: The big push against masks from the business community standpoint is that it kind of projected fear. Back then, there were a lot of businesses. They were concerned about Christmas sales. They were worried about whether they could keep their stores open.

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MCEVERS: Health officer William Hassler warned that the health of the economy was being put above the health of the people.

MAK: The health officer was kind of like the 1918, 1919 Dr. Fauci. And like Dr. Fauci, the health officer was also subject to threats. I mean, there was actually an incident where someone decided to send what looked to be an improvised explosive device addressed to Dr. Hassler.

MCEVERS: Wow.

MAK: And so there were threats at that time as well about public health guidance.

MCEVERS: Yeah, that sounds so similar to now. I mean, Fauci has had to have a security detail because of threats, right?

MAK: That's right. But, you know, the - Dr. Hassler, at the time, he was not intimidated by that. He said, look at the data; when masks are worn, rates of transmission go down, so wear them. They're helpful. They're useful.

MCEVERS: In fact, Hassler said masks should be mandatory again, so the board of supervisors took up the issue.

MAK: Hundreds of people, like I said, gathered in December as part of a public meeting to debate whether or not to impose a mandatory mask order. And ultimately, local officials refused to implement it.

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MCEVERS: After that, the number of flu cases and deaths in San Francisco kept going up and up.

MAK: And by January 10 of 1919, officials have had enough. So local officials decide that they're going to approve a mandatory mask order on January 10 of 1919, after 600 new cases were reported that day.

MCEVERS: And so what did the protesters do?

MAK: Well, you know, people continued to engage in civil disobedience of the order.

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MAK: In fact, they started to organize. Despite the rising number of cases in San Francisco at the time, 2,000 people gathered together at a meeting of the Anti-Mask League, which was an organization purely created to oppose this mandatory masking rule.

MCEVERS: This Anti-Mask League meeting got heated. Some of the protesters wanted to circulate an anti-mask petition. Some wanted to recall Dr. Hassler. In the end, the anti-maskers issued a statement that the new mandatory mask ordinance was, quote, "contrary to the wishes of a majority of the people."

So, you know, at least for local officials, the number of deaths changed their minds. But for the sort of hard-liner anti-maskers, it did not change their minds. In fact, it only hardened their position.

MAK: That's right. But there were many - I don't know the population of San Francisco in 1918, 1919, but 2,000 people still represents a very small minority of the public, right? So...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MAK: ...You know, if you look at what's happening in Michigan today, these are hundreds of people in a state of millions.

MCEVERS: Right.

MAK: And, you know, 2,000 people in San Francisco at the time, while a large crowd, did not represent the popular opinion in San Francisco.

MCEVERS: Right.

MAK: Still, it was a really interesting case of folks in a pandemic organizing together to push back against public health measures.

MCEVERS: So the officials have put this mandatory mask order in place, and you've got this couple thousand hard-liners who are against it. But what do most people do? Do most people comply? And what happens after that?

MAK: Most people begin to comply, and not only that; the number of new cases and the number of deaths as a result of flu and pneumonia at that time declined, which was the first decline in quite some time.

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MCEVERS: Flu cases went down. And two weeks later, the mandatory mask order was once again lifted.

We talked to one historian, Nancy Bristow at the University of Puget Sound, and she says it's not totally clear how big of a factor masks were in the total number of flu cases in San Francisco. She says masks weren't always made of the right materials, and a lot of people didn't wear them right. And it's possible the second wave was more about the fact that the city didn't close businesses and stop big public gatherings like they did during the first wave. Still, the masks became a symbol, a thing people were either for or against. In the end, 3,000 people died in San Francisco, one of the highest numbers in a major U.S. city during that pandemic.

So what do you think about this story? You know, after you've told it, like, how have you come to think about it and what it means?

MAK: You know, there currently are a lot of protests...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MAK: ...In Michigan and elsewhere about, you know, pushing back against public health measures.

MCEVERS: Right.

MAK: We don't need them. And I saw so many similarities comparing today and a hundred years ago. I saw civil libertarians a hundred years ago saying that if the government can tell us to wear a mask, then there's no limit to what they can do. There were folks who threatened public health workers. There were all sorts of explanations and pushback against, you know, public health measures that we see in society again today.

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MAK: You have two reactions to this, right? Firstly, it's reassuring in the sense that humans generally have acted similarly throughout history when it comes to this sort of public health threat. And what's frustrating is that humans have acted similarly (laughter) both a hundred years ago...

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right.

MAK: ...And today, right?

MCEVERS: Tell me what's reassuring about it. Like, I understand what's frustrating about it, but...

MAK: (Laughter) What I'm saying is that it's - like, this is not a singularly terrible moment in time.

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MAK: You know, this has happened before. San Francisco survived and became what it is today, which is, you know, one of the world's great global cities. And it gives a little bit of hope about how the world will continue despite this.

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MCEVERS: But here's the other frustrating and possibly very scary thing that Tim says he takes away from this story.

MAK: It's a warning, right? It's a warning that if as the United States gets through its first wave and begins to open up again, that in a second wave, we can look back to history and predict that perhaps Americans will be much, much more unhappy to have to shut down a second time, to have to adhere to these public measures a second time. To have that little bit of opening and then a second wave hit you could lead to protests. You could see a lot of people thinking, is this really worth it for a second time? And certainly, that's what happened in San Francisco.

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MCEVERS: That was Tim Mak, investigative reporter at NPR.

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MCEVERS: This episode was produced by Chris Benderev and edited by Tom Dreisbach and Lisa Pollak. Music by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions. You can also read more about the Anti-Mask League in the book "America's Forgotten Pandemic" by Alfred Crosby. And there's been lots of good coverage of this in the San Francisco Chronicle, past and present. That's where we got a lot of information for this story. So thanks, guys.

You can hit us up with your story from the pandemic by emailing embedded@npr.org or on Twitter at @NPREmbedded. We'll be back soon with more. Thanks.

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