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Streets and parks: Japanese find pubs that COVID cannot close

As fatigue sets in and people look to let loose, local governments crack down

Even outdoors, the risk of infection grows when people drink and talk louder for longer periods of time.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- More Japanese are bringing their drinking habits into parks and onto streets as the coronavirus remains stubbornly aggressive, and bars and restaurants heed local government requests to close early.

Many of these buzz-seekers say they want to indulge in well-ventilated spaces.

"I find it difficult to go to a cramped izakaya pub as I care about the infection risk," said a company employee in his 30s who was with a few friends in a park near Shimbashi Station in Tokyo. "But this place is fully ventilated."

These personal dilemmas -- the long pandemic has people stressed out and feeling the urge to have a few drinks with friends regardless of the infection risk -- are coming to the fore at the same time the hospital bed occupancy rates in Tokyo and the Kansai region, which includes Osaka Prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture, is on the rise.

In many cases, drinking in parks and on streets is winning out, and local governments are having to urge the outdoor revelers to keep it down due to complaints of noise and trash left behind.

The Minato Ward government, which manages the park the company employee was drinking in, began to notice a trend toward outdoor drinking in January, right after the central government declared a second state of emergency for Tokyo and a few other areas of Japan.

With the decree, the governments of Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures asked bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. Many complied.

The emergency was lifted on March 21, but bars and restaurants were still being asked to close by 9 p.m. Tokyo, along with Kyoto and Okinawa, began a new series of prevention measures on Monday, once again asking eateries to close by 8 p.m. "I think those who cannot get their fill of alcohol [at bars] are flowing into the park," a Minato Ward official said.

The city of Osaka on April 5 introduced measures to try to tamp down the virus's resurgence that are similar to restrictions under the state of emergency.

Two nights later, many bars and restaurants closed at 9 p.m., heeding a request from local authorities. Dozens of young people subsequently moved their socializing to Ogimachi Park, in Kita Ward. They kept their spirits lubricated with cans of beer and other alcoholic beverages.

"I need something that makes me feel refreshed," a company employee in her 30s said. "I'm tired of exercising restraint."

According to a Japanese government panel, the risk of infection rises when people eat and drink in large groups. It also rises if people carry on long conversations without wearing masks.

The panel cautions people to avoid the three C's -- closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings -- all of which can be easily avoided outdoors. But as people drink and speak in ever louder voices, the risk of infection from contact with droplets grows, even outdoors.

In Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, a man in his 20s who had joined a barbecue party with several other people learned on April 5 that he had contracted the virus. One of his fellow revelers had already been confirmed to be infected.

There are also the trash and noise nuisances.

The park in Tokyo's Minato Ward is littered with empty cans and other discarded items every day. Many garbage bags are needed to haul it all away, according to the ward government.

In Tokyo's Meguro Ward sometime in February, officials began receiving complaints about young people speaking loudly while drinking at night in residential parks and other open spaces.

The unease Japan's residents feel about being cooped up all the time could worsen this week. The Japanese government on Friday decided to impose strong coronavirus proliferation-prevention measures similar to the restrictions under the emergency decree. They will take effect on Monday in parts of Tokyo, Kyoto Prefecture and Okinawa Prefecture.

In these areas, residents will be asked to refrain from nonessential or nonurgent outings. But the request is nonbinding and might not be effective in reining in outdoor get-togethers.

The government of Minato Ward, Tokyo, in late March put up signs that say drinking and eating is prohibited. At night, security guards speak to people and ask them to refrain from drinking and eating in the parks.

"Although there are many people who are high on alcohol," a ward official said, "we want to tenaciously ask for their cooperation and expand their understanding of the anti-infection measures."

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