Public Entertainment Prevails: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

By Alexandra Wenger ‘21, Features Editor

Imagine you’re a New York City resident in 1918. Life is pretty stressful to say the least. WWI is raging. In addition, the extremely contagious 1918 influenza pandemic is plaguing the world. So what do you do to destress? If you guessed, “Go to an extremely crowded theater?” then you’d be correct! New York City theaters stayed open during the pandemic.

If that sounds dangerous to you, that’s because it was. Across the country, other cities shut down their stages, movie theaters, schools, and other places of public activity. Even Hollywood decided not to produce any movies until the flu subsided. But in New York City, virtually everything stayed open. The reason, according to the health commissioner of New York at the time, Royal S. Copeland, was to prevent panic and hysteria, which he believed predisposed the public to physical ills. He simply did not want to intrude on ordinary life. However, some safety measures were put into place to prevent shutting down entirely. Curtain times for theaters were staggered. Standing-room tickets and smoking were no longer permitted and, while masks weren’t mandated, people who sneezed or coughed would be removed from the audience.

Interestingly enough, New York City fared better than every large city along the East Coast. Why? Firstly, the security measures that Copeland created were established quickly and efficiently. Secondly, with everything open in the city, the economy didn’t come to a halt as it did in other cities.

Don’t go getting any crazy ideas. This would not be plausible during the COVID-19 pandemic, as some carriers are asymptomatic. We would not know when to throw them out of theaters!

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