A Historical Perspective on Regulating Eating Places Amid a Pandemic

by Brian Fink*

The ferocity and turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic has, at times, been compared to the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918–1920.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said in July 2020 that the Covid-19 pandemic could reach the same tragic magnitude as the Spanish Flu.  The United States lost about 675,000 people to that virus.  In February 2021, it had already lost 500,000 to the new one.  There are many comparisons to be made, and the present feels frighteningly familiar.

That is why I decided to see for myself how we regulated restaurants, bars, and the rest of the budding American hospitality industry during the Spanish Flu.  To do that, I analyzed scores of newspaper stories and advertisements from between 1918 and 1920.

What I discovered was déjà vu: a global pandemic, mask mandates, forced quarantines, fake news and newspapers fanning the flames of fear, eating places and entertainment venues shuttered, curfews and restricted hours of service, restaurants struggling to survive, businesses deemed essential and nonessential, anti-vaxxers, hairbrained explanations of how the virus started, an economy on the brink, and, oh, the fighting and the politics.

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