On Nov. 10, 1918, a headline in The Asheville Citizen‘s editorial section declared: “An epidemic conquered.” Evidence, the paper wrote, suggested overall cases of influenza were declining in the city. Within another week, the paper supposed, local health authorities would begin “the lifting of the various safeguards which have caused much inconvenience, it is true, but which, nevertheless, saved the community from the ravages of the scourge that has swept the world.”
By Nov. 14, the paper’s previous optimism all but crumbled when 41 new cases were discovered within a 24-hour period. “This report was discouraging to the city health authorities, who had hoped that with the steady decrease in the number of new cases … schools, churches and motion picture houses might be opened next week,” The Asheville Citizen wrote.
Though the majority of Buncombe County’s influenza cases occurred in Asheville, residents in the county’s rural areas were impacted as well. On Nov. 21, 1918, the paper reported a total of 1,652 cases and 42 deaths outside the city; meanwhile, Asheville saw 4,129 cases and 120 deaths within the same two-month period. Regardless of lower county numbers, the paper wrote “that conditions in some of the townships are now worse than at any time since the epidemic started.”
Despite this sudden increase in rural cases, the latest city numbers showed a decline. On Nov. 22, with only 13 reported illnesses within the previous 24 hours, The Asheville Citizen announced that Dr. Carl V. Reynolds, the city’s health officer, would allow churches to reopen on Nov. 24. “The health officer stated that if no bad results follow the Sunday church opening the schools and motion picture houses will be allowed to resume operations in a few days,” the paper added.
That Sunday, as congregants prepared for their first service in nearly two months, city officials urged worshippers to remain cautious. “Dr. Reynolds called attention to the fact that disease germs may be carried in the nose and mouth of a person apparently well,” The Sunday Citizen reported. “He stated that he wished to call attention to the probability that germs may be scattered by general singing in church and to ask that this feature of the services be omitted today.”
In the same article, it was announced that schools would reopen the following Wednesday.
With restrictions loosened, influenza spread. On Dec. 1, 1918, The Sunday Citizen revealed that 32 new cases were reported within the previous 24 hours. The article continued:
“The health department states that the increase in the number of cases is undoubtedly due to the numerous gatherings and meetings of various kinds that were held this last week. When it was announced that churches, schools and theatres would reopen, the board states that the majority of the people took it for granted that all epidemic danger had passed and governed themselves accordingly. The health officials said little last night but they looked grave.”
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.