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New Year’s Eve Dance Defies Flu Rules


Not everybody went along with mandates meant to curb the 1918 flu pandemic. Bismarck had a mask mandate for waitresses and others handling food. The city health officer announced the order would be “strictly enforced.” Waitresses of at least one dining establishment declined, leading authorities to “take steps to see that they comply or are prevented from serving food.”

Masks could be obtained for no charge from Bismarck’s city health officer or the Red Cross. Newspapers carried instructions for making masks from gauze.

Bismarck police had orders to arrest and jail anyone loitering or congregating on streets. The chief of police put a corps of extra officers on duty for enforcement.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic events in defiance was a New Year’s Eve dance at the Odd Fellows Hall in Bottineau that wrapped up in the early hours of January 1st 1919.

Days before the dance, Bottineau County’s Board of Health had adopted strict rules aimed at preventing the influenza’s spread. Among the restrictions – all public dances.

Invitations to the dance spread by word of mouth. Young people and “brave expounders of personal liberty” held and attended the dance. High school students stopped by the hall to look on.

The nearby Willow City Eagle newspaper called the dance a mistake that “imperiled the health and wellbeing of a whole community.” The paper also reported on questions of what authority the Board of Health had to enforce its rules. It wasn’t clear whether the county rules applied to the city.

An attorney who served on Bottineau County’s Board of Health said the penalties for violation of the rules were as steep as a $100 fine, 30 days in jail, or both. The board had enacted the strict rules in an effort “to keep the schools of the county open for the remainder of the school year, even though some people may suffer a little by the curtailment of their pleasures, or their revenues.”

No arrests were made at the dance or in days afterward, and it’s unclear if anyone was ever penalized.
Locals continued holding dances in January, and several families fell ill after dances in nearby Omemee.

The Willow City Eagle newspaper opined that the young people of Bottineau County should “realize that the health and welfare of a community takes precedence over their own personal pleasures, likes or dislikes or even their own personal liberties.” 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 14. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 15. Page 3
The Bottineau Courant. 1918, December 26, Page 8
The Bottineau Courant. 1919, January 9. Page 1
The Bottineau Courant. 1919, January 23. Page 1
The Bottineau Courant. 1919, January 30. Page 8

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