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Japan gov't wary of nightlife workers leaving big cities, leading to new virus clusters

Employees of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government call for people to go home in a busy entertainment quarter of Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward, in the capital on the evening of April 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- As more and more cases of the novel coronavirus are reported among customers and workers at nightclubs and other entertainment establishments in and outside the seven prefectures under the state of emergency, the government has expanded a call for people to refrain from visiting such venues beyond Tokyo and other big cities, to cover all prefectures across Japan.

Behind the move lies some employees of those establishments moving out of the capital and other areas to regional downtowns to find new places to work. The government is aware of such outflows of entertainment workers and is vigilant about a possible spread of coronavirus infections to regional areas.

On April 7, when the state of emergency was declared for Tokyo and six other prefectures based on a revised special measures law for new types of influenza and other infectious diseases, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cited nightlife spots during a press conference as an example of establishments asked to refrain from operating under the state of emergency declaration. This was because a host of challenges were reported including the difficulty of tracking down people who came in close contact with coronavirus carriers at nightclubs and other adult establishments where clusters of infections had emerged.

The need to respond to mass infections at late-night establishments first emerged as one of the key agendas within the government in late March. At an advisory panel meeting held on March 27 to examine a draft basic response policy based on the revised special measures law, panel chair Shigeru Omi, who is an authority on infectious disease control, stated, "In Tokyo, it has come to light recently that there are infections at nightlife establishments where employees serve customers intimately."

In response, the government stepped up information gathering over entertainment quarters mainly in Tokyo. As the April 7 state of emergency declaration covered the three big urban areas centering on Tokyo, Osaka in western Japan and Fukuoka to the southwest, the government expected that late-night businesses across the country would also refrain from operating.

As it turned out, however, only a few establishments in the central Japan city of Nagoya and other areas that were outside the state of emergency prefectures suspended their businesses, leaving government officials baffled.

There were also reports that nightlife business workers in Tokyo were moving to the cities of Sendai and Sapporo in northern Japan and other regional downtown areas, raising alarm among government officials. The result was the nationwide expansion of the request for people to refrain from visiting nightlife establishments.

Late-night entertainment quarters are prone to mass infections as numerous customers and workers gather in closed spaces, and it is difficult to trace people who come in close contact with coronavirus hosts.

"As demand for anonymity is strong among visitors to and workers in late-night entertainment districts, it is hard to track down their connections (to infected individuals). Young people also tend to be reluctant to cooperate with our investigations," lamented a senior official at the Cabinet Secretariat.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama and Tadashi Sano, Political News Department)

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