Pandemic Mask Battle Is Nothing New

West Virginians slipping out of COVID-19 exile are ripping a page out of history concerning face coverings.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, people resisted wearing masks in public, which prompted many jurisdictions to enact mask-wearing ordinances to protect World War I troops from being infected.


A Red Cross public service announcement called anyone who refused to wear a mask “a dangerous slacker.” Despite their compliance, many complained the masks were uncomfortable, ineffective or bad for business.

The report noted that, “after the war ended, and there was no longer a sense that people should wear masks to keep the troops safe, some dissenters even formed an Anti-Mask League in San Francisco.”

Another dispute erupted on what or was not a safe mask. In Phoenix, most people complied with the city’s mask law, but some poked holes in them so they could smoke cigarettes.

In an Oct. 12, 1918, Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper article, Health Commissioner Dr. M. Williams warned vendors in the Old Market House “to keep their places of business in a sanitary condition.” He also said people exposed to the flu should wear a gauze mask available at the Red Cross headquarters.

Flu Newspaper
From the Wheeling Intelligencer – Oct. 12, 1918


Here we are, 102 years later, and the mask battle continues.

Who knew people would choose sides? Mask wearers keep their (social) distance from the bare faces. The two sides sometimes growl at each other as if trying to recruit from the ranks of the enemy.

As state officials guide people through the official phases of economy reopening steps, many who don’t know what to believe make their own rules. Along with that, come excuses tantamount to those spawned by mandatory seatbelt laws or stop smoking resistance.


Wheeling-Ohio County, West Virginia, Health Commissioner Howard Gamble debunks some of the excuses people use to go without face covering.

Some common excuses are highlighted in italics, while Gamble’s responses follow.

“I feel I already had the virus, so I’m not worried about it. I feel fine. I’m not sneezing, or have a fever. I’m good to go.”

Gamble: A blood test can show if we had the virus, but the test has not been out very long and, because it is not readily available, it is highly unlikely that someone can prove they had the virus. Also, blood tests are not one hundred percent proof that it guarantees immunity.

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“They fog up my glasses.”

Gamble: We are always going to hear these standard excuses. They are like excuses people use for smoking, or not wearing their seat belts. Excuses people use for not wearing masks are just that, basic excuses. Those who refuse to wear one because it makes them uncomfortable should realize that excuses do not prevent them from getting the virus.

“I am allergic to them. I don’t have the virus, and I don’t care if I get it.”

Gamble: I’ve never heard that one. It’s probably the most invalid and outrages of excuses.

“I forgot it at home.”

Gamble: It’s a common mistake to not remember. I have walked into stores myself without remembering to put my mask on.


Face mask protection is not a localized topic of discussion.

The latest recommendations from America’s Centers of Disease Control and Prevention calls for people to wear cloth face coverings in public settings where 6-foot social distancing measures are hard to maintain. It says cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.


The World Health Organization recognizes there are many questions about the use of face masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, and that many countries are recommending that people wear face covering.

It says wearing a medical mask can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. However, the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection. Other measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene should be adopted.


Gamble strongly recommends that people wear masks, and those who do should stay at least six feet away from the ones who do not wear them.

“Everybody should get into the habit of wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing,” he said.

“The virus is going to be here for a while, possible way into the fall.”

Fred Connors is a retired investigative, criminal courts and police reporter for the Wheeling newspapers. He holds multiple West Virginia Press Association awards, as well as one from the Southern Newspaper Publishers’ Association. Fred lives in Wheeling with his new bride, Sharon Kennedy Connors.