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Japan reopens for business, pinning hopes on tracing app

Despite risks of new outbreak, domestic travel resumes; bars back in action

 A bus passenger has his temperature checked in Tokyo on June 19: The previous day the Japanese government announced the lifting of all travel restrictions. (Photo by Kei Higuchi) 

TOKYO -- Once again, the domestic terminal of Tokyo's Haneda Airport was crowded with travelers Friday, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared an end to all restrictions on domestic travel the previous day.

The resumption of domestic travel is part of a full reopening of the economy that started on Friday, including allowing bars and nightclubs -- previously hotspots for the novel coronavirus -- to welcome customers. The government must now try to strike a balance between firing up the economy and keeping the virus under control. 

During the period of voluntary restrictions, some people have gotten used to working from home and teleconferencing. But many others are eager for a change of scenery.

One 39-year-old flyer at Haneda Airport was on her way to Ishikawa in central Japan. The part-time university researcher said the lifting of the travel restrictions has finally allowed her to return to her lab and catch up on experiments she needs to finish before an academic conference in the fall.

While travel was restricted, she worked remotely with colleagues at the lab. But her research, which deals with the sense of taste, requires her to conduct experiments. "There is a limit to what I can do remotely," she said.

Resorts, amusement parks and nightclubs have also sprung back to life. In the northern hot spring town of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, hotels have reopened. Operators are hopeful that domestic tourists from the south will bring money to Hokkaido's tourism-dependent economy.

Fuji-Q Highland, an amusement park near Mount Fuji, has begun welcoming guests from across the country. Until recently, the park was open only to residents of Yamanashi Prefecture.

In Tokyo, Johnny Angel, a nightclub in Edogawa Ward, has also reopened in a limited way. The venue normally seats up to 70 guests, but for now it will take a maximum of 15. A plastic sheet now hangs between the stage and the seats to reduce the risk of transmission.

In Tokyo's upscale Ginza district, hostess bars are back in action. True to the neighborhood's reputation for top-notch service, one of such bars has set up multiple air purifiers and fans to ensure good ventilation. Customers are required to have their temperatures checked at the entrance, wear masks at all times and wear covers on their shoes.

The relaxed rules mean events such as concerts can take place if there are no more than 1,000 guests. But the Nippon Professional Baseball league will hold its first game of the season on Friday without spectators.

Abe said at a news conference on Thursday that normal life can resume, so long as people observe basic social-distancing rules. Technology is also expected to play a part in keeping new cases under control. On Friday, the health ministry rolled out a contact tracing app called Cocoa, which is similar to the TradeTogether app used in Singapore but with more robust privacy features. 

Like TraceTogether, Cocoa uses Bluetooth signals to keep a record of people who have been within 1 meter of the user for 15 minutes or longer. Users can notify other people on the app if they become infected with the coronavirus. Cocoa can be downloaded for free from the Google and Apple app stores.

Cocoa stores contact data for 14 days, after which it is automatically deleted. The data is kept on the user's smartphone, rather than with the government, as in Singapore. No data is gathered that is traceable to specific individuals, such as names, phone numbers or location data.

The app will be effective if it is used by 60% of the population, the government says. 

"If we are able to quickly isolate people who come into contact with those who are infected, a lockdown will be unnecessary," Abe said. "Please rest assured. This app doesn't collect private information. So please go ahead and download the app," Abe said at the news conference.

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