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Coronavirus

Amid 'critical 3 weeks' of COVID, Japanese keep going out

Data shows little change in nightlife and tourism despite government pleas

Osaka's Minami district remains busy even as businesses are asked to curtail their hours.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Two weeks after Japan's government called for a focused three-week fight against a resurgent coronavirus outbreak, public behavior has barely budged even as daily case counts continue to set records.

Nikkei examined data from Docomo InsightMarketing, a unit of wireless carrier NTT Docomo, on traffic in entertainment districts and tourism hot spots in major cities. Most showed only slight declines in recent days compared with before Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government's virus response, said on Nov. 25 that the next three weeks would be "critical" to containing its spread.

The trend, which contrasts sharply with the steep drop in activity seen during the first wave of cases back in the spring, suggests that a fatigued public is letting its guard down after dealing with the virus for the better part of a year.

The analysis compared traffic volumes from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Monday through Thursday with the same times on Nov. 16-19, three weeks earlier. Average traffic dipped just 2.4% around Tokyo's Kabukicho nightlife district in Shinjuku -- an even smaller decline than was seen in similar areas in other cities. Traffic fell 11% in Nagoya's Nishiki area and 16% in Osaka's Kitashinchi district.

The overall average for nightlife and entertainment areas in five major cities, including the Nakasu district in Fukuoka and Susukino in Sapporo, was an 8.6% decline.

Lots of masks, little distance: Commuters crowd the street in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward on Dec. 10.   © Kyodo

Meanwhile, new cases remain at record levels across much of the country. While confirmed daily infections are declining in Hokkaido, they are flat or rising in Tokyo and Osaka, as well as in Nagoya's Aichi Prefecture. Serious cases and deaths are growing steadily, due in large part to the relatively high number of cases among middle-aged and older people, and medical care capacity is increasingly squeezed.

"Infectious respiratory diseases tend to become worse in the winter, so fatality rates could rise further from here," warned Mitsuyoshi Urashima, a professor of molecular epidemiology at Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo.

Many areas have urged establishments that serve alcohol to close by 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. -- a request that the data suggests is often not heeded. Traffic between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. over the same periods fell 15% in Kitashinchi and 8% in Nishiki, and actually grew 8% in Shinjuku and 3% in Susukino.

Tokyo authorities asked alcohol-serving restaurants and karaoke bars to limit their operating hours to between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. for about three weeks starting in late November, offering payments of 400,000 yen ($3,830) to small businesses that agree to do so. But some, struggling to survive as the pandemic wears on, refuse to comply.

"I followed the requests in spring and summer, but now I'm staying open till 12 a.m. so I can bring in whatever customers I can," said the proprietor of a yakiniku grilled-meat restaurant in Shinjuku.

"Our competitors in the area are open till 12 a.m., so we can't be the only ones to fall behind," the owner of a Kabukicho bar said.

As case numbers rise, Tokyo is considering extending the request for limited operating hours beyond the three weeks.

The trend is similar in tourist areas. Average traffic around 2 p.m. on the weekend of Dec. 5-6 fell only 10% or so in Tokyo's Asakusa district and the popular hot spring resort of Hakone compared with the three-day weekend of Nov. 21-23. Traffic in some areas examined, including Hakone, was higher last weekend than on Jan. 18-19, before the pandemic.

The data painted a very different picture back in April, when offices and schools closed and people avoided going out amid a government-declared state of emergency. Traffic plunged by more than 80% in Shinjuku and Kitashinchi and over 70% in Nishiki between April 20 and 23 compared with the pre-pandemic period of Jan. 20 to 23.

In a set of recommendations issued Friday, the government's coronavirus advisory panel noted public fatigue with restrictions as a factor in their lack of effectiveness during the current wave of cases. The proposals include an 8 p.m. closing time for restaurants and bars that serve alcohol in areas where infections are surging.

"To encourage changes in public behavior, the government should engage in dialogue with experts and municipalities and come out with coordinated policies," Jikei's Urashima said. "It would be best for people to avoid settings like year-end parties as much as possible, minimize travel and spend the New Year's period at home as much as they can."

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