When should Duke City reopen? That was the question the Albuquerque Journal posed after two months of enforced shutdowns and social distancing in the 1918 Flu Pandemic.
The pandemic hit the U.S. in spring, but a more brutal second wave swept west in September 1918, hitting Albuquerque in early October. On October 5, City Manager A. R. Hebenstreit placed the city under quarantine, shutting schools, churches and theaters. Officials urged parents to keep children in their yards, posted placards on doors of the infected, and began to tally cases and deaths.
It was a solution riddled with holes. Neighbors broke quarantine to visit one another. Residents and family doctors removed placards prematurely. Physicians neglected to report cases. Locals fretted about the economic costs of social distancing, and many worried about rumors the Duke City might be closed until January 1919.
On Nov. 14, after prolonged debate, city commissioners and board of health officers agreed to reopen Albuquerque on Dec. 2. Some wanted to end the quarantine immediately. Others were less sanguine, pointing to a spike in cases after celebrations of the armistice on Nov. 11.
The Albuquerque Journal took the question to the streets. When should the Duke City reopen? Opinions were divided. City Manager Hebenstreit said he hoped for Dec. 2, knowing that quarantines had been prematurely lifted elsewhere. If conditions should worsen, he warned, “the public should be prepared for restrictions such as have never before been witnessed in Albuquerque.”
“I’d rather have my child in school than out under existing conditions,” responded the Albuquerque banker J.E. Herndon. “The present quarantine is a farce.”
Physicians were more prudent, but even they were divided. Old-timers W.G. Hope and P.G. Cornish felt the quarantine could be safely lifted. The young, up-and-coming William Randolph Lovelace felt differently. “The quarantine should be made more stringent,” he insisted. “Masks should be worn in all public places, such as stores and offices.”
Rabbi Moise Bergman, who ran an emergency hospital for flu victims, echoed Lovelace. “It is hard to answer the man who says his business has been hurt by the quarantine,” he observed, “but it will be impossible to answer the one who says ‘My child has died because of the neglect of the state.'”
The flu pandemic was about to run its course, but Albuquerque residents could not know this yet in November 1918. After the quarantine was lifted on Dec. 1 – one day earlier, to let locals attend church – new cases and deaths trickled in. Yet the quarantine was never restored.
In the end, the city took a gamble, based as much on political calculation as on science. The story resonates with ours, even if details are different. Both the virus and the science have changed, even if human responses may seem eerily familiar. In 1918, Albuquerque faced a brutal second pandemic wave. We are still in the early stages of our story. Now, as then, the future is uncertain.
How will we respond?