What Coverage of the Spanish Flu Pandemic Can Tell Us About Coronavirus

David S. Cohen

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In Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined “Battlestar Galactica,” the ragged remnants of the human race often respond to adversity by invoking an article of their faith: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”

As we face the real-life coronavirus pandemic, that mantra rings true. All this has happened before: a highly contagious, deadly virus hopscotching the planet before exploding into a pandemic; denial and uncertainty among political leaders; gatherings banned; entertainment production shut down, thousands unemployed; fear and grief as entertainment pros, including the famous, fall ill.  

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That describes the 2019-20 global pandemic of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It also describes the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20.

That virus was as contagious as COVID-19 and deadlier (though if current figures are correct, not by much). Revisiting Variety’s coverage of the 1918 pandemic reveals eerie echoes of that time in ours — and important lessons about what to expect over the coming months, what we can do to avoid a repeat and what may come afterward. 

It’s uncertain even today how many died of the Spanish flu. Deaths are estimated at 675,000 in the U.S. and as many as 50 million worldwide. 

Some of the parallels between the Spanish flu and COVID-19 are likely to provoke déjà vu. In 1918, Variety reported the ocean liner Niagara was unable to dock in Australia with 300 people in quarantine. In the 21st century, the ships are bigger: 700 aboard the Diamond Princess when it was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, for weeks; 3,500 people on the Grand Princess when it was refused a berth in the San Francisco Bay. 

Then, as now, conspiracy theories grew. “Fantastic stories regarding Spanish influenza have been circulated,” Variety reported. “Some have enemy origins as the base. Medical experts say the stories are bosh.” 

A century later, Jerry Falwell Jr., discussing campus closings March 13 on “Fox & Friends,” suggested the virus could be a North Korean bioweapon developed in concert with China, and part of a political dirty trick designed to hurt President Trump. 

The origins of the two diseases may have a parallel too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website suggests Fort Riley, Kans., was the site of the first outbreak. That was in the late winter and spring of 1918, with World War I mobilization in full swing. Thousands of men were crowded into barracks, living close to a pig farm. It may have been a pig that passed the flu to men in the camp. A hundred years later, COVID-19 seems to have jumped to humans in a live-meat market in Wuhan, China.

Both viruses were (and are) “novel” — meaning new, so people lack immunity. Both are highly transmissible, attack the lungs and spread through tiny droplets expelled when an infected person talks, sneezes or coughs. According to the Institute for Disease Modeling, the viruses appear to be almost equally contagious and very close in severity. 

Yet they behave differently in crucial ways. The 1918 flu was particularly dangerous for people 20-40; pregnant women were especially vulnerable. Young performers were hit hard. Because it could trigger a “cytokine storm” overreaction from the body’s immune system, the virus often killed with terrifying speed — sometimes within hours or even minutes of the onset of symptoms. The stronger immune systems of young adults may have worked against them.

The flu pandemic was the lead story in Variety’s Oct. 11, 1918, edition.
Variety

By contrast, early data indicated COVID-19 is most dangerous for seniors and those with weakened immune systems, and it rarely kills quickly. Those infected typically have days of mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. But in 20% of cases, the virus moves from the nasal passages to the lungs and tips into severe illness, with a percentage of those dying. The time from the onset of symptoms to death ranges from two to eight weeks. 

The 1918 flu simmered through summer, especially among armies massed in Europe, but military censors limited coverage of illness among the troops. In Spain, where there was no fighting, ample reporting covered the illness’s progress; hence the moniker Spanish flu. 

Americans read news of the growing outbreak, but there was no urgency about it. Influenza epidemics had come before, but there was nothing to suggest it would be a catastrophe. On July 12, 1918, a Variety report from London said it had reached an almost epidemic level and had disrupted “many programs.” In August, though, a breezy cable reported, “The now famous Spanish grippe epidemic has made its appearance in Paris, but in a mild form, and the medical authorities carefully watching this form of influenza state there is not the slightest need for anxiety.” That was probably a lie enforced by military censors, but the report didn’t go so far as to call the outbreak a hoax. 

Variety didn’t devote much coverage to the epidemic, as it was a story for the daily newspapers, not news of the show world. But in the Sept. 20, 1918, issue, the vaudeville page reported that several military camps, where many touring acts were booked, were under quarantine. A week later, a front-page item said shows in Chicago were affected by “the serious epidemic of Spanish influenza.” Boston was ordering theaters and schools closed. Almost overnight, the epidemic had jumped from a curiosity to a crisis. 

The flu was more widespread in some places than others, and the response to it was uneven. Events were now moving so quickly, the weekly couldn’t keep up.

Variety’s reporters still seemed skeptical. In the Oct. 4 issue, an extended report on closings in New England groused that theatrical bookings were down due to “the panic into which the authorities were stampeded by the press as a result of the epidemic of Spanish influenza in eastern Massachusetts.” A 10-day ban was already in effect for the “100 legitimate theaters and 400 picture houses” in the greater Boston area, employing more than 3,000 people, and theaters were not scheduled to reopen as originally planned. 

While the epidemic was “raging” in upstate New York, Syracuse was said likely to not be forced to close its theaters, “although the death rate among soldiers, nurses and civilians is high.” The outbreak was most severe in the nearby army camps, which were under quarantine, but “every available inch of room in local hospitals is being utilized to care for the cases. … Local physicians themselves are victims of the disease, adding to the seriousness of the general situation.” 

That’s the scenario today’s “flatten the curve” strategy is meant to avoid. But in 1918, with no concept of “social distancing” and few able to work from home, people continued to crowd together, with disastrous results. 

The “theatre men” of Boston resisted the order to close venues, arguing, “The Elevated railway is allowed to jam its cars to the point of suffocation during rush hours, and department stores, market places and office building elevators were allowed to crowd people together even without criticism.” In the end, theater managers preferred a government order rather than voluntary closures, because the official ban helped them escape contracts with their actors. 

A week later, Variety’s front-page headline said, “Epidemic Shows No Signs of Immediate Abatement,” and the story below it proclaimed of Boston, “The city is absolutely dead.”

“Without the theatres, the general public decided to go home and the danger of catching the new form of grippe aids them in deciding that home isn’t such a sad place after all.” 

Another story lamented, “Nothing in the annals of America’s theatricals has so disastrously affected the entire amusement field nor forced such a complete shut-down of theaters in so wide a territory as the epidemic of Spanish influenza.” In a peculiar inversion of President Trump’s hopeful prediction that spring warmth will be the end of the COVID-19 threat, Variety reported, “Health heads advised that the most powerful aid in eliminating the epidemic was cold weather.” 

Besides Boston, at least 50 cities shuttered theaters. (“First time this city has ever been closed tight,” said Variety’s Seattle dispatch.) Indiana closed 600 theaters, plus schools and churches. Similar measures were taken in Louisiana. But some areas were still thinking it over, notably most of the South. Ohio was open; neighboring Kentucky was either open or closed, depending on which Variety article you believed. Conflicting reports ran on a single page. 

In New York, theaters remained open for business, but showtimes were staggered to reduce crowding on the subway and on other public transportation around Times Square. New Jersey venues were closed, except for some spots across the river from Gotham. 

A century later, two cities are often cited as models of “Do” and “Don’t.” Philadelphia, which permitted a parade and other public gatherings, had a terrible outbreak. On Oct. 3, after more than 200,000 cases in the state, came what Variety called “the most drastic health order ever issued in this Commonwealth,” closing all meeting places, including schools. “Nightly since, there have been millions in the state without public amusement of any kind” — and no one was protesting. 

Meanwhile, St. Louis shut down gatherings quickly. On Oct. 8, a delegation of theater owners objected to the drastic action to Mayor Henry Kiel. But the city wound up with a far less severe outbreak than Philadelphia and other cities. The St. Louis response is held up as a model. 

The Oct. 11 Variety debuted a large “Epidemic Casualties” feature. That first week, it reported 17 deaths and a dozen serious illnesses among showbiz pros and their close families. On Oct. 18, coverage of the epidemic took up the front page: “Entire Country Near Closed; Few Hopeful Reports Received,” said the headline, with the subheads “Epidemic Spreading West … New York and San Francisco Only Big Cities Still Open.” The Casualties column had more than 30 deaths. Most studios were shutting down production. Los Angeles had 1,000 new cases reported on Oct. 15 alone. 

But some cities were already planning to lift the ban, Boston and Syracuse included. New York City, which hadn’t shuttered theaters, saw 900 new cases on Oct. 15, so it had to do something. The city banned smoking and standing-room admissions in theaters. Venues could play to capacity but no more than that.

On Nov. 1, the Epidemic Casualties section was about as full as the previous week, but the headline read, “Epidemic Fast Breaking Up; Many Re-Openings Next Week.” Over the next two weeks, about eight weeks after the epidemic exploded in the U.S., the worst seemed to have passed. The Armistice ending the Great War added to the celebratory mood. Many cities and states ended their bans and reopened their theaters, schools and churches. On Nov. 15, Variety proclaimed, “Epidemic Wave Has Passed; Entire Country Re-Opening.”

That first part was wrong. 

In the century since the 1918 pandemic, scientists have studied the Spanish flu as a medical mystery. Some parts of that mystery remain unsolved. One major puzzle: How could the pandemic come in three waves? 

The first, in spring 1918, quieted in the summer though it didn’t die out. The second, more lethal wave came in the fall. It forced the sort of extreme measures that have been revived in 2020, including closures of public spaces and bans on large gatherings. That wave had the rapid spread and high peak that experts and authorities are trying to forestall in 2020. 

The Nov. 11 Armistice was cause for celebration. Troops were demobilized, but the celebrations and homecomings spread the virus farther. 

Reopenings of public places continued as if all would soon be well, while reports still filtered in of the pandemic continuing. As Variety reported from Indianapolis that the flu was “ancient history,” Cincinnati businesses successfully fought off closure edicts. Dec. 18 saw a dispatch from Seattle saying there had been 11,000 influenza cases and 6,000 deaths. That 54% death rate seems unlikely in retrospect for an illness some say had an overall morbidity rate as low as 2% in the U.S. (though the rate globally is believed to be as high as 10%).  

Before Christmas, swaths of the country that had lifted restrictions were forced to reinstate them. The Dec. 20 Variety reported, “A new regulation is in force in many middle western cities, where theatres are permitted to operate but are now allowed to fill but 50 per cent of the houses at any one time.” The percentage varied from city to city. Washington, D.C., reported, “Theatres here are doing great business,” though there were 400 new cases a day, albeit with a reduced death rate. 

Reports of this second wave continued into 1919. Deaths decreased, but new cases were plentiful. Australia was still in the throes of the pandemic at that time, with a full closure of theaters that lasted 13 weeks. 

Flu news tailed off as the weather warmed, and there proved to be pent-up demand for entertainment. Ticket sales boomed. All seemed well. Improbably, though, yet another wave arrived in October, along with a cooling weather trend. 

Neither Variety’s editors nor the experts they consulted recognized what was coming. On Halloween, a story headlined “Low ‘Flu’ Death Rate” began with a warning that sounds all too familiar today: “An individual infected with the ‘flu’ germ standing in the midst of a crowd waiting for admittance into a motion picture theatre, or any other amusement place, may infect practically every person in that crowd.” 

That better-late-than-never warning from Dr. Royal S. Copeland, New York health commissioner, was accompanied by reassurance that the death rate from the flu was the lowest since at least 1866. He advised that theaters avoid congestion in general, especially crowding in lobbies, to keep venues well ventilated, and to avoid dry-sweeping them so as to avoid kicking up dust. 

Such advice seems laughably naive today, but it indicates how limited the knowledge of viruses was then. Virology was cutting-edge science in the early 20th century, and viruses had barely been identified, let alone understood. Over the next two months, the third wave built to become a front-page story again. Business slumped enough for Universal to halve salaries in its New York office. There was a rash of performers missing shows due to the flu. 

At the end of January 1920, Broadway takings were down, explicitly due to influenza. By then, some were even pointing fingers at Prohibition and the ban on medicinal alcohol, then just two weeks old, for the resurgence of the disease. In February, as big a star as Al Jolson was sickened, and closings swept through the South and Canada. But despite these hot spots, it was a faint echo of 1918’s catastrophic peak. Neither authorities nor audiences were much alarmed. As fall 1920 approached, producers were preparing for yet more flu, but there was no new wave. 

The Spanish flu was gone. 

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