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Bismarck Flu Restrictions

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When the flu pandemic struck Bismarck in 1918, everyday life ground to a halt. Schools, churches and theaters closed. Public gatherings ended. Bismarck's city health officer ordered waitresses and other food handlers to wear face masks. The Red Cross made and distributed masks to the public. Police had orders to arrest and jail anyone loitering or congregating on streets. The chief of police put extra officers on duty for enforcement. With school off, Bismarck children were banned from congregating. And in these dark days of the pandemic, World War One lingered in its final weeks.

Every day, Bismarck Tribune readers learned of new cases and deaths. People ages 20 to 40 were most susceptible. An eccentric North Dakota Supreme Court justice touted liquor as a cure. In the first days of the outbreak, the Tribune opined that “Bismarck’s part is to remain calm, to keep cool, to watch its health, and to obey to the letter the orders of the [city] health department.”

The pandemic hit at a time when North Dakota had poor public health services. There was no state Health Department. Many cities and counties had health officers, but most had little or no money for health work. There were also fewer physicians and nurses available due to many being overseas in the war. Red Cross volunteers handled many flu efforts.

On this date in 1918, news came that Bismarck's monthlong restrictions would be lifted. The city health officer and school superintendent announced plans to reopen schools. Churches would hold their first services in a month. Theaters would reopen.

The Tribune observed that “Bismarck will ever look back upon this period with regret for the fine young lives which were so untimely snuffed out, but mixed with the regret there must be happier memories of the unselfishness and consecrated service rendered within their means by everyone.”

But the pandemic was far from over. The flu struck the 1919 Legislature, leaving lawmakers sick – some of whom left their beds to vote on major bills. And more than a year later, the pandemic became so bad in Bismarck, the city health officer banned public dances for 16 days. By one estimate, more than 5,100 North Dakotans died in the flu pandemic, which lingered into 1920.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 9. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October. 10. Page 4
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 14. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 15. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, October 31. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, November 8. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, November 9. Page 4
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, November 11. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, January 29. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, February 16. Page 3
State of North Dakota. (1920). Report of the State Board of Health for the Biennial Period Ending June 30, 1920. Bismarck Tribune Printers

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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