Ten years ago in Toledo, Ohio, it was an everyday sight to see downtown streets devoid of human life, the lone fast-food paper bag tumbling across the sidewalk as the wind whistled through empty corridors. In the last few years, however, in the spirit of the ongoing rewriting of post-industrial presents and futures, Toledo has seen its infrastructure slowly rebuilt and repopulated, making certain streets like Adams or Huron even bustling.
And that makes the sudden standstill in recent days all the more striking, with residents under Ohio’s mandated stay-at-home (or shelter-in-place, or quarantine, or whatever term you like best) order for 14 days, at least, in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, a novel, generation-changing circumstance for humankind in the 21st century. Those living downtown take the occasional walk, and find themselves the only ones in a seemingly empty city—an experience that may have been unsurprising in Toledo ten years ago, but one that is a little more exceptional now.
While this is all novel to us, in 1918, Toledo found itself in much the same position: a city thriving after the turn-of-the-century Industrial Revolution, quickly becoming a global leader in industry and trade with its robust rail and shipping routes and the recently-transplanted Overland factory bringing prosperity and jobs. While World War I took a hard hit on Europe, Toledo saw booms in wartime industry and collective morale. And again, as today, it came to a halt.
The 1918 so-called Spanish Influenza (it didn’t originate in Spain but most likely got its name from Spain’s extensive wartime reporting on the pandemic) ravaged the world in a matter of months, eventually infecting about 500 million people—a quarter of the population—and killing an estimated fifty million. It also first appeared with relatively mild symptoms, but soon grew deadly through various respiratory complications—and with all its unknowns, it triggered precautions like handwashing and social distancing and mandates like event cancelations and forced quarantines. Sound familiar?
In 1918, Ohio was hit hard—Cleveland saw the worst death rate in Ohio, and per capita, was worse than New York City and Chicago even though the city health commissioner was warned as early as Sept. 22 (but didn’t act until weeks later). Toledo, however, had one of the lowest death rates at 295 per 100,000 residents, as city and regional leaders were swift and severe in quarantining and issuing public health notices.
Toledo was first warned of the disease on Sept. 19 of 1918, and saw its first victim by the 23rd. On the same day, responses began and female workers for Champion Spark Plug began “warfare on influenza” by sacrificing their lunch break to sew fabric face masks (much like you can do now). Schools, bars and churches were ordered shut by Oct. 14, an op-ed called for public transit regulation on Oct. 1 and hospitals closed to visitors on Oct. 16. Penalties for breaking the temporary restrictions were hefty—one news article stated that the penalty for allowing children to attend social gatherings or even bringing them into a grocery store was a “$100 fine and 30 days imprisonment”—the equivalent of over $1,700 in 2020.
Officials adopted the provision of free inoculation serums on Oct. 24. By October 28, the Toledo News-Bee announced the “City Winning in Flu Battle” and by Dec. 30 the Blade had reported that the “Influenza [was] Almost Stamped Out Here.” While there were some subsequent ups and downs, Toledo largely contained the pandemic through strong and insistent leadership.
And that’s not to mention that this was in wartime, when supplies and personnel were few. Doctors in army camps were actually requisitioned to return to Toledo to help fight the pandemic. While the city’s response was not perfect—and residents still had some of the same concerns we seem to have today, as an Oct. 22 newspaper article clarified the “Football Situation for Next Saturday” to disappointed high school sports fans—it proved better, faster and more effective than those of surrounding cities and states.
It was not necessarily any easier to control an outbreak in 1918, and people weren’t any more willing to be restricted than they are now. When challenged in October of 1918 by local businessmen after forcing stores and restaurants to close, Toledo’s then-mayor said, “We’re not thinking in dollars and cents now…We’re thinking of the public health” and continued to strictly enforce business closures, sending policemen out to businesses that didn’t comply.
The tug-of-war between economics and human life continues in 2020 over COVID-19 restrictions, although Ohio’s Governor Mike Dewine has strongly advocated for “saving lives” and keeping restrictions in place as long as needed. He led the nation with some of the earliest prohibitions of mass gatherings, school closures, bar and restaurant closures as well as an election postponement and stay-at-home order.
“We would not have issued this if it was not a matter of life and death,” DeWine said regarding the stay-at-home order, which prohibits Ohio residents from leaving the home and effectively shuts down physical operations for businesses unless essential.
Toledo and Ohio have shown strong responses to the outbreak both in 1918 and 2020, but many places were not (and are not) like Toledo. In 1918, the timing and advancements of modern, public life at the time paved the way for the rapid spread of the disease before measures could be put in place.
The Industrial Revolution changed everyday life, rapidly expanding urban centers and encouraging the development of public spaces and entertainment—what journalist Patrick Sisson calls “the template for modern life.”
“And when the 1918-1919 pandemic hit, officials pursued a similar slowdown of American life, and an emptying out of public spaces,” he wrote in an article for Curbed.
Now, riding out the wave of globalization and interconnectedness—a 21st-century revolution of sorts—when travel, trade and communication have never been easier, a virus originating in one of the most active trade and travel hubs in the world (China) had only a matter of time before it jumped to and from heavily-populated urban areas across the globe.
COVID-19 now having made its way to mid-size and even rural communities and as the U.S. surpasses China in most cases of the virus, Ohio is now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths, at 1,137 confirmed cases and 19 deaths since its first confirmed patients on March 9 and Lucas County had a total of 56 confirmed cases and 2 deaths as of Mar. 27, 2020. Our streets may be still, but for good reason.
As serious as the pandemic was in 1918, there seemed to be a little good-natured humor as evidenced in the title of a recurring Toledo News-Bee column called “Flugrams.” These tidbits of information and overheard conversations can perhaps best be represented by an Oct. 18 edition, in which a pair of soldiers stopped in Toledo “between trains for a few minutes” on a Thursday night make a remark reminiscent of snarky insults heard many times since (think John Denver’s “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio”):
“No town could be deader than this one tonight.”
And that, for once, was something to celebrate.
Stefan Binion contributed research to this article.