October 7, 2011 •
On this day in 1918, the U.S. House public galleries were closed because of the outbreak of the Spanish flu pandemic.
Each week the U.S. House Office of the Clerk gives “Historical Highlights” and today it remembers how 93 years ago the country was facing a flu pandemic. The House and Senate decided to close the public galleries.
The Office of the Clerk gives us an idea of the scope the problem: “According to some modern estimates, more than 50 million persons perished worldwide in the 1918–1919 outbreak; most sources attribute 500,000 or more deaths in the U.S. alone to the Spanish flu. Washington, D.C., swelled by an influx of government workers during the First World War, was particularly hard hit.”
They reported that there were 400 deaths in D.C. during the second week of October, and 730 deaths the week after that. A number of House members were absent from the session and action had to be taken.
U. S. Rep. Henry Rainey (D-Ill.) said, “Mr. Speaker, it is matter of common knowledge that an epidemic of alarming proportions is prevailing throughout the country. … Out of an abundant precaution the Senate has ordered the galleries closed, which action, I understand, meets with the approval of the medical authorities, and so I ask unanimous consent that the Speaker be instructed to close the galleries of this House until further action shall be taken by the House.”
The motion was approved without objection, and the House and Senate galleries were closed and were not reopened until November 4.