Indianapolis Has Reopened Before

The worldwide influenza outbreak in 1918 required taking many precautions; wearing a mask was deemed 99 percent effective. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was a global disaster. Affecting over 25 percent of the U.S. populace, it took nearly 675,000 lives.

Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Indianapolis businesses had been shuttered for weeks, classrooms across the city remained empty, and public gatherings were prohibited. The virus had reached epidemic proportions, but the number of reported cases and deaths was lower here than in cities like New York and Chicago. Residents longed for life to return to normal, and businesses worried they might not withstand the impacts of the shutdown. And so Indianapolis lifted the closures and restrictions.

The similarities to the coronavirus are striking, but it’s a story—a cautionary tale, really—of how influenza ripped through the city in the fall of 1918, receded, and then returned.

When influenza first arrived in the Indianapolis area in mid-September, Dr. Herman G. Morgan, Indianapolis Board of Health secretary, issued commonsense cautions to residents: Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, sneeze and cough into a handkerchief, and stay home if sick.

Initially, 175 cases appeared contained to a vocational training outpost at the Indiana School for the Deaf and Fort Benjamin Harrison that month. By October 5, however, 78 Indianapolis residents became infected.

In response, Morgan mandated the windows of schools and interurban streetcars remain open at all times. Still, by the next day, cases doubled to 200, and it became clear more drastic restrictions were needed. Morgan, who would later be described as a man who possessed the courage to carry out his convictions and the tact to foster goodwill, banned gatherings over five people and closed schools, theaters, movie houses, and churches. By October 8, with cases rocketing to 1,000, Morgan expanded closures to include skating rinks, pool rooms, bowling alleys, “dry” saloons, and courts.

The measures appeared to work. Cases began decreasing by October 10, but Morgan cautioned it was far too early to ease up on the restrictions. “To lift the ban too soon, it is pointed out, would probably result in persons who have had influenza carrying the disease to others,” according to an article in The Indianapolis News. Ten days went by, and cases continued to trend downward. The IPS school board considered reopening some schools, but Morgan cautioned against it. A week later, with pressure mounting, the Board of Health voted to lift the ban of public gatherings and school and business closures on October 31.

Cases surged. By November 18, 656 new cases had been reported and an influx of influenza patients filled City Hospital. The following day, Morgan again shuttered city schools and ordered people to wear masks in public. When mask-averse “knockers” refused to comply with the order, Morgan warned closures and bans on gatherings would be reinstated if people continued to flout the rule.

“This is not a time for destructive critics, petty jealousies, or all-time ‘knockers,’ but an occasion for every individual to aid in the enforcement of the preventive measure to the end that disease and death may be reduced to a minimum,” Morgan said.

Eventually, the city lifted the mask mandate and schools reopened. New cases continued throughout the winter, but at a less frequent rate than the fall.

Now, as in 1918, pressure is mounting to reopen the state, with the current stay-at-home order set to expire May 1. However, Indiana hasn’t met the federal guidelines to begin the reopening process, which include a downward trajectory of COVID-19-like cases within a 14-day period, a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period, and a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing, and the ability to treat all patients without crisis care.

So, is it too soon to reopen? History will be the judge.