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Jack Kosowski
By Jack Kosowski May 4, 2020

Healthy people have been confined before COVID-19, contrary to lawmaker’s claim

If Your Time is short

• Many cities during the Spanish flu outbreak enacted similar restrictions.

• In Missouri, people were restricted on what they could do. Public gatherings were prohibited. Closed or canceled non-essential businesses, in-person churches and sports events also occurred then and now.

Have healthy people ever been the subject of a quarantine in St. Louis or Kansas City? 

Missouri state Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin says they haven’t.

O’Laughlin (R-Shelbina) said in part of a since-deleted March 22 Facebook post: "I see no time in the history of this country when perfectly healthy people have been basically confined to their homes or only able to do essential things as in Kansas City or St. Louis."

O’Laughlin’s statement referred to stay-at-home orders announced March 21 in Kansas City and St. Louis city and county. At the time of O’Laughlin’s statement, the state of Missouri had not issued a stay-at-home order. 

The statewide order expires May 4 and will be replaced with a phase-in of businesses and activities. 

How does stay-at-home in 2020 compare historically? We went looking — and found holes in O’Laughlin’s assertion nationally and in the state.

The flu of 1918

When we reached out to O’Laughlin for context, she called the stay-at-home orders in St. Louis and Kansas City "expanded quarantines" and said she believes they are taking away Missouri residents’ rights. The CDC says quarantines restrict movements of sick people.

statewide stay-at-home order says residents should "avoid leaving their homes or other places of residence." The order has exceptions, including allowing people to get groceries, prescriptions or gas. People are encouraged to get fresh air and get outside but abide by social distancing guidelines.

Were there similar restrictions placed on healthy people before COVID-19? One place to start looking is the 1918 flu pandemic. Restrictions then looked a whole lot like today.

O’Laughlin’s claim encompassed "the history of the country." Our fact check on a statement by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cited several studies of cities' responses to the Spanish flu in which most public places were closed. 

We couldn’t find a specific "stay-at-home" order for the 1918 flu in St. Louis. Still, the city’s health commissioner ordered that all public gatherings like sports events, schools and churches be canceled. 

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All non-essential businesses were closed. Only banks, newspapers, embalmers and coffin makers were allowed to be open. 

We looked at newspaper pages from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that were archived on newspapers.com. Some of the headlines in the late fall of 1918 included:

  • "Influenza Closing Order Extended to All Churches." On the same page, a sub-headline reads "Playgrounds closed" (Oct. 8).

  • "Governor Forbids All Public Gatherings in the State" (Oct. 9) .

  • "No Public Funerals" (Oct. 15).

The 2020 St. Louis citywide order said in part: "This order allows residents to continue meeting their basic needs and that essential services are provided; however, residents will be required to stay at home when possible." 

What about Kansas City?

According to an article by KCUR, the city in 1918 never saw heavy restrictions because many people and businesses resisted. Schools were closed but were opened back up in October 1918.

The city’s mortality rate from the the Spanish flu was higher than most cities in the country. 

Our ruling

O’Laughlin said in a Facebook post: "I see no time in the history of this country when perfectly healthy people have been basically confined to their homes or only able to do essential things as in Kansas City or St. Louis."

Many cities during the Spanish flu outbreak enacted similar restrictions. And in Missouri, based on St. Louis’ efforts to combat the 1918 flu pandemic, we can safely say that this "time in history" did occur. People were restricted on what they could do. Public gatherings were prohibited.

Closed or canceled non-essential businesses, in-person churches and sports events also occurred then and now.

We rate O’Laughlin’s statement False.

Our Sources

St. Louis City Government, "City of St. Louis Issues ‘Stay at Home’ Order, Mar. 21 2020

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Stay at Home Order, Apr. 3, 2020 

KCUR, What the 1918 Flu Pandemic Taught Kansas City About Dealing With Outbreaks Like The Coronavirus, Feb. 26, 2020

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis saw the deadly 1918 Spanish flu epidemic coming. Shutting down the city saved countless lives, Mar. 28, 2020

CDC, Quarantine and Isolation , (Sep. 20, 2017)

CDC, Quarantine and Isolation - History of Quarantines, Jan. 10, 2012

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Influenza Closing Order Extended to All Churches, Oct. 8, 1918

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Governor Forbids All Public Gatherings in State, Oct. 9, 1918

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, No Public Funerals, Oct. 15, 1918

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Police Enforcing Closing Order to Check Influenza, Oct. 8, 1918

Healthy people have been confined before COVID-19, contrary to lawmaker’s claim

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