At the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Yellow Jack quarantine flag was flown at Florida’s Cape St. George Lighthouse.
Known as the LIMA nautical signal flag, the square yellow and black flag, also known as the Yellow Jack, is the internationally accepted signal for “quarantine.”
Ships and shore stations have displayed flags to indicate contagion at least as early as the beginning of the 18th century, originally being a plain white flag. The first known yellow flag, or Quebec (Q for quarantine), was recorded in Great Britain on January 1, 1789.
The concept of quarantine has been around for ages, from as early as biblical times to the 14th century. Its purpose is to prevent exposure from person to person who may have a contagious disease. During the bubonic plague, ships arriving in Italy were required to anchor away from port for forty days. Italians referred to this as “quarantina giorni” or 40 days, which later evolved into “quarantino.” This practice proved so useful that it became standard practice throughout Europe over the next three centuries. The practice of quarantine came to the United States in 1799 after the yellow fever epidemic claimed 5,000 lives and a quarantine station on the Delaware River was built. In the 1830s, a quarantine was enforced at the Port of New York to protect the citizens from a cholera pandemic.
During the Spanish flu in 1918, both the United States and Europe banned public gatherings and closed institutions to quell the outbreak. This shows that quarantines have been utilized for centuries to contain and minimize the spread of disease. Although implemented with the best of intentions, sometimes quarantines can lead to some undesired side effects. History shows that quarantines can divide people, decrease trust between people and their government, and lead to civil unrest or other disobedient actions. Some things never change.
The Public Health Service Act of 1944 authorized the federal government’s legal authority to enact quarantines. Initially, ships needing to quarantine hoisted the yellow quarantine flag to signal the need for quarantine inspection by the Public Health Service ship. The flag flew until the vessel was deemed clear of disease. Today, there are 20 quarantine stations at ports throughout the United States, which serve as a comprehensive system for disease surveillance and control, thereby limiting the introduction of infectious disease into the country.
Currently, the plain yellow or Quebec signal flag actually indicates “free of contagion, please board for inspection.” Hopefully the Quebec plain yellow flag will soon replace the Yellow Jack at the Cape St. George Lighthouse, which will indicate that the lighthouse is again open to the public.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2020 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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