Today, across the United States and around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to adopt what is often referred to as a war footing, mobilizing resources and making sacrifices.
But in the fall of 1918, when the “Spanish” Flu was taking hold on Long Island, the nation was already on a war footing. Battles raged across Europe and the U.S. military grew from 378,000 soldiers in April 1918 to 4.7 million by the November Armistice. The massing of troops in tents, barracks, ships, foxholes and hospitals intensified an influenza virus, H1N1, that killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, including an estimated 700,000 in the United States.
And according to Hempstead Village historian Reine Bethany, it was the nation’s military mobilization, and in particular the massive Camp Mills, located on the Hempstead Plains and hosting as many as 30,000 soldiers, that made her community a center of that pandemic.
Just as it is today.
In 1918, Bethany said, Hempstead Village was a bustling community of about 6,500 residents, already a haven for immigrants and about 13 percent black. Its retail businesses, restaurants and social and recreational organizations were a magnet for servicemen waiting to be shipped to Europe. By 1919, the soldiers hosted were coming back from Europe.
Today Hempstead Village, with just over 55,000 residents, is the most densely populated village in New York. Much of its character derived from African-Americans who came north in the last century, and immigrants from around the world who still come. Both often live in dense settings and make their living in essential jobs.
The outbreaks of flu began in Europe in early 1918 and when they first cropped up in Nassau County were mostly dismissed, Bethany said. On Oct. 3 the Hempstead Sentinel wrote that even though eight flu deaths had been reported at Camp Mills in a week, “the percentage of new cases is small and no serious epidemic is anticipated.”
One week later, the Brooklyn Eagle reported 130 new cases on the base each day and wrote, “For some time the medical authorities at the camp thought they could compete with the epidemic and except for forbidding men to congregate, took no stricter measures. With an alarming increase of new cases and a great number of deaths, it was decided to put a ban on all comings and goings from the establishment.”
Within two weeks, North Hempstead and Hempstead Village had closed schools, churches and movie theaters.
Today, Hempstead is Nassau County’s most intensely COVID-19-infected community, with 985 cases, about twice as many as runners-up Uniondale and East Meadow, and is laboring under similar restrictions to those in 1918.
And while local officials were slow to shut down in 1918, they were quick to open back up. On Oct. 27, The Associated Press reported steam shovels were digging trenches in New York for mass burials. But by late December the restrictions were gone and 100,000 soldiers, many from Camp Mills, were in New York City for a massive gathering celebrating the Armistice and Christmas.
It was a mistake.
Two weeks later, the Southside Observer and Nassau Post reported that 350 new cases had been reported in three weeks’ time and Hempstead health officials “have decided to renew measures deemed necessary for safeguarding the public from infection.”
In Hempstead today the epidemic rages on, but across Long Island and the nation much of the talk is on how we can get society open again.
We’re also talking about what we need to learn from this coronavirus crisis. But it’s not clear we’ve yet learned the lessons so cruelly taught to Hempstead and the nation a century ago.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.