Epidemics, Social Distancing and Parades (UPDATED)

(Note: The City of Philadelphia has cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day parade. This blog post was written after officials said they would not cancel the event, but they reversed their stance overnight.)

As news of the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Philadelphia came today, one couldn’t help but think to the parade held in October 1918 that triggered an epidemic of influenza in the city after health officials had warned against the mass gathering of people. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Philadelphia officials said Tuesday that Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade will go ahead as planned Sunday, but they urged spectators to stay off the streets.

Because of the threat of coronavirus, the city has asked parade organizers to tell people to turn on their TVs and not attend in person, Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

“The organizers were understanding of the city’s position,” Abernathy said. “They are still planning to have the parade with the understanding that we’d prefer folks not attend.”

City officials were grappling with what to do about the parade against an unnerving historical backdrop: the decision just more than a century ago to go ahead with a World War I Liberty Loan parade on Broad Street during the 1918 flu pandemic. Epidemiologists now view that parade as a classic blunder that led to a spread of a disease that claimed 12,000 lives in Philadelphia.”

Indeed, those of us who study epidemics see the aftermath of the parade in September 1918 as the classic example of what not to do when faced with a communicable respiratory disease like influenza or coronavirus. One of the first steps in mitigating the effects of an epidemic is social distancing, keeping people away from each other. So places and events that bring people close together are closed and/or canceled.

For their part, the City of Boston cancelled its St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Monday, heeding the warning from public health officials about the spread of coronavirus. From The Boston Globe:

“City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a South Boston native, said the decision to cancel the parade wasn’t a political one.

“It is an informed public health decision,” he said. “You can never be too cautious dealing with Covid-19.”

He added, “We need to empower and support the public health experts we have in this field to help us make these decisions to keep the risks as low as possible.”

The parade has been canceled in years past, Flaherty said.

“The town has survived,” he said. “And so have the Irish.”

The parade was canceled at least twice because of World War I and again in 1920 because of icy street conditions, according to “South Boston on Parade,” a history of the event. Organizers cancelled the parade in 1994 after the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston won the right to participate in it.

The parade was postponed in 1956, 1978, and 1993 because of snow.

US Congressman Stephen Lynch, another Southie native, said in a statement Monday night that he had participated in the discussion with Walsh, Flaherty, and others, and he agreed “that cancelling the parade and the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at the Convention Center were the correct decisions.””

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Kent State University has announced that classes will be held online instead of in person for about a month beginning next week, and classes are to cease for the remainder of this week. According to NBC News:

“Kent State University on Tuesday said it will suspend face-to-face classes for a time to stop the spread of coronavirus. This comes after Ohio Gov. DeWine made the recommendation that all colleges and universities go to remote learning.

The following was posted on Kent’s website:

In an effort to progressively activate precautionary measures to slow transmission of the virus and consistent with recommendations from state health authorities to limit large gatherings and practice social distancing, Kent State is taking the following preventative and proactive actions:

  • March 10 at 4:25 p.m. (evening classes)-March 15: Face-to-face classes will cease for all of Kent State’s Ohio campus locations.
  • March 16-20: All classes will begin remote instruction.
  • March 23-29: Spring break will occur as scheduled.
  • March 30-April 10: Classes will be held via remote instruction.
  • April 13: Face-to-face classes will resume.

These changes also affect Kent State’s College of Podiatric Medicine, but clinical rotations will continue.”

There doesn’t seem to be a plan to keep students from gathering in other places while they’re away from school.


To learn more about what happened in 1918, visit the Spit Spreads Death exhibit at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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