Heidelberg Historical Society

To Mask or Not To Mask

Posted on Thursday, 30th April 2020 by Janine Rizzetti

from our Facebook post 25 April 2020

To mask or not to mask? Just as today, during the 1919 influenza epidemic there was conflicting advice about wearing masks. New South Wales made the wearing of masks compulsory on public transport and in the open, but masks were not compulsory in Victoria unless you were in an enclosed space with more than 20 people.

As with the coronavirus pandemic today, regulations were tightened and then eased. At first hotels could remain open as long as they didn’t have more than 20 patrons, but as the epidemic became worse, in mid February all hotels within 15 miles of the GPO were closed- so there goes Heidelberg! Billiard rooms were closed at first but they later re-opened as long as they only had three players per table (2 players and 1 marker) and no spectators. Local sporting events were cancelled but VFL football proceeded. The roofed grandstands were not used, and “excessive numbers” were not to be admitted. “Excessive numbers” were defined as a group of more than 20, leaving less than 25 superficial feet available for each individual.

In Heidelberg, the Protestant churches held outdoor services, but the Catholic churches were conducted inside, with the congregants wearing masks. At any public meeting, as soon as the twentieth person arrived, everyone had to put on their masks. All picture theatres were closed, and very few public events proceeded. This was particularly painful when the ‘welcome home’ events for soldiers returning from WWI had to be cancelled.

As the first wave of influenza abated, the restrictions were lifted probably more quickly than we will see this time. The hotels opened on 4 March; racing, schools and churches opened on 8th March and picture theatres opened on 10 March as long as they were not overcrowded and the patrons wore masks.

And the outcome? Well, a second wave hit Melbourne in July and August, although by then the response was more at a state, rather than council level, as it had been in Jan-Feb 1919.

Images: details from Australasian 15 February 1919 p.55 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/140218739

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