Then Now: Looking back on pandemic response

Comparing messaging from 1918 to 2021

As vaccinated and unvaccinated Juneauites are called upon to mask up in public to battle COVID-19 infections, the Empire took a look back to compare current masking rules and messages to those shared in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic swept through the country and Alaska.

Here’s a look at how local accounts described the situation then and now:

Growing cases

Then: Newspapers provided a picture of local and statewide cases. On Nov. 15, 1918, the Douglas Island News offered this dispatch:

“With a couple of hundred cases of the flu in Juneau, many in Ketchikan, Haines and other Alaskan cities, if any steps can be taken in this city to prevent it from getting a start here, it is certain that every citizen should do all in his power to aid the authorities in charge.”

Now: On March 22, 2020, the Juneau Empire reported that Juneau’s first coronavirus case was confirmed by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

DHSS continues to provide statewide case reporting and the City and Borough of Juneau provide daily case counts of new infections through the CBJ COVID-19 Dashboard. The Empire publishes the latest state and local case numbers as they are available.

Officials recommend masks

Then: According to The Alaska Daily Empire on Nov. 15, 1918, “A Seattle analysis has been made of the cases and it has been found that the face mask is a positive preventative if used according to instructions, which are as follows: Influenza masks should be large enough to extend well about the nose and below the mouth, covering both, and wide enough to cover the whole front of the face below the eyes. The mask is made of gauze and should be four thicknesses, with four strings holding the mask in place.”

Now: After initial confusion about mask efficacy, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health experts, scientists and numerous state, national and international agencies offer evidence the mask-wearing reduces the transmission of COVID-19.

After initial shortages, commercially made masks are now widely available.

Public health officials still suggest covering the face and mouth.

Officials require masks

Then: On Nov. 4, 1918, the Alaska Daily Empire included a notice that the governor of Alaska, the mayor of Juneau and other territorial health officers “request that all residents wear an influenza mask at all places other than home.”

On Nov. 15, 1918, the Douglas Island News reported that “Juneau is still reporting new cases each day and a couple of deaths have been reported. The city council has asked the citizens to all wear masks and will introduce an ordinance to make it a crime not to wear one.”

Now: On July 20, 2020, the Empire reported that cloth face coverings are required in Juneau, based on an emergency city ordinance and that city officials were seeking cooperation with the order.

The ordinance was replaced by a set of mitigation measures that remain in place.

On July 21, 2020, the Empire reported that Gov. Mike Dunleavy strongly urged Alaskans to wear masks or cloth face coverings when in public, with or without a mandate.

So far, a statewide mask mandate has not been issued.


Then: According to newspaper accounts shared online by Alaska historian David Reamer, during the 1918 flu pandemic, the Common Council of the City of Juneau, Alaska, imposed a $21 fine on people who did not wear masks “upon our streets and in all public places.”

Now: CBJ established a $25 fine for failure to follow mitigation measures, dropped the fine briefly in July, and then reestablished it in September.

If the 1918 fine was adjusted for inflation, the 2021 equivalent fine would be about $380.


Then: According to the Douglas Island News, in Nov. 1918, special policeman, J.D. Bagley, was tapped to lead enforcement.

On Dec. 6, 1918, he was “dismissed” because “very nearly all the families that have been quarantined for the flu are now out and there being no further need of a special policeman, J.D. Bagley.”

Now: Deputy City Manager Robert Barr tells the Empire that while the fine has never been levied, it’s an essential tool in giving the ordinance teeth and making it easier to enforce.

“When we have the option, the conversation becomes easier,” said Robert Barr, deputy city manager, in a Friday morning phone interview.

Barr said that when the fine is in place, the community service or police officer can use it as part of the conversation.

The case for masking up

Then: “This is a duty you owe not only to yourself but to your fellow citizens, for is not the saving of one human life recompense enough for the few days of discomfort that the wearing of the masks may cause? Show your Juneau spirit, wear your mask for a few days so that we may again open our schools and our commercial activity may become normal once more,” reads a clip from the Douglas Island News in November 1918.

Now: Signs appear throughout Juneau. Sample messages include:

“Wearing is caring,” along with a picture of a mask.

“My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.” City Manager Rorie Watt has described mask wearing as civic-minded and patriotic.

The Empire receives several letters from readers supporting and opposing mask rules.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at or 907-308-4891.