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Coronavirus

Shiseido tells 8,000 workers to stay home

Companies take own precautions as government rules fail to provide clarity

Shiseido will have nearly a third of its Japanese workforce telecommute through at least March 6 and possibly longer. (Photo by Kaisuke Ohta)

TOKYO -- Japanese cosmetics maker Shiseido is barring about 8,000 employees from coming into work for more than a week amid concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, joining a growing list of companies taking precautionary measures as the number of cases ticks higher.

About 30% of Shiseido's Japanese workforce -- including the president and other executives, but not factory workers and sales staff -- are to stay out of the office from Wednesday through March 6, and potentially longer if necessary. Meetings may be handled via teleconference. The company previously encouraged employees to telecommute, but the new policy essentially makes it mandatory.

As alarm grows over an outbreak that has reached about 160 cases, which does not include those on a cruise ship docked at Yokohama, the Japanese government outlined basic policies Tuesday for dealing with the virus. But the document is short on specifics, providing little help to businesses and local governments now scrambling to respond.

The guidelines provide no instructions on what companies should do if an employee turns out to be carrying the coronavirus, for example.

Ad agency Dentsu said Tuesday it will have all of the roughly 5,000 employees at its head office in Tokyo work from home indefinitely starting Wednesday, after one worker tested positive for the virus. In-person meetings may be allowed for urgent matters if all parties agree.

NTT Data had all 700 or so employees at one building switch to telecommuting after a worker from a partner company was found to be infected.

The guidelines urge companies to encourage employees with "fever or other cold symptoms" to take time off and avoid going out. But they are silent on whether people should stay home for something as minor as a cough or a slightly elevated temperature.

Royal Holdings, operator of the Royal Host restaurant chain, has drawn up a flowchart to determine whether employees should stay home. Back-office staffers are encouraged to stagger their shifts or work from home, and the company says it has stepped up preventative measures at its restaurants as well.

The government policies on holding public events are similarly vague, calling for companies and local officials to reconsider whether an event is necessary in light of the risk of spreading the virus. Businesses unwilling to put people at risk are increasingly cancelling events out of an abundance of caution.

The Yomiuri Land amusement park is staying open for now with extra precautions, such as installing hand sanitizer stations around the park and having employees stay home if they develop a fever.

But "it's hard to tell whether or not this is enough," a representative said.

On the medical side, many beds at facilities that can handle infectious diseases are taken up by evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has had nearly 700 confirmed coronavirus cases. The government guidelines direct hospitals in areas with large outbreaks to prioritize inpatient treatment for severely ill patients while sending milder cases home to recover.

This policy leaves local governments facing the difficult tasks of allaying the concerns of those turned away from hospitals and figuring out how to continue taking care of patients with non-coronavirus ailments.

Person-to-person transmission of the virus in Japan has begun to have a major impact on local life, spurring hospitals to suspend outpatient treatment, schools to shut down and elder-care facilities to halt services.

The vagueness of the central government's guidelines "will force local governments to make weighty decisions," said an official at a municipality in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo.

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