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As the world works its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, a run on specialized surgical masks capable of filtering out the virus has led to shortages in some areas. Cloth masks are probably as hard to find at your local drugstore as soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend the use of masks by healthy people. Most aren’t fine enough to filter out airborne virus anyway, and the run on true antiviral masks has probably put health care workers at risk, forcing them to rely on less-effective ones while treating infected patients.

It’s an indication of how much has changed since the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago that in those years, masks were mandatory. Variety reported on Nov. 22, 1918, that health officials in several cities ordered that they be worn in “every gathering place,” including stores, businesses, theaters and churches, before they initiated the general quarantine. Indianapolis issued an order providing for “the universal use of cloth masks in all public places” before the decision was made to close down businesses. Even then, it was clear in some quarters that masks were a half-measure that accomplished little.

Even after quarantines were lifted, though, in some cities health authorities still insisted “all patrons wear masks.” Theater managers in Los Angeles debated whether to reopen their establishments when the quarantine was lifted due to the continued rules, “preferring to wait until the mask wearing order [was] dispensed with.”

They were probably thinking that theatergoers concerned enough to wear masks might not be in the right frame of mind to enjoy a show anyway.

Movie shoots were not immune to the orders. On Feb. 14, 1919, near the end of the horrific second wave of influenza, Variety reported that actor Shirley Mason and director Walter Edwards spent a night in jail in Pasadena “for failure to conform to the law, which demanded they wear masks during the influenza epidemic” on set.

Mason and Edwards worked on two two-reel comedies together in 1919. It’s lost to history which pic they were making when they were locked up, but both titles suited the calamitous times: “The Rescuing Angel” and “The Final Close-up.” 

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