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Restaurants are open, but Japan's entertainment areas still quiet over coronavirus worries

Acrylic partitions are seen set up across a table as a coronavirus infection countermeasure at a restaurant in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward on June 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

FUKUOKA -- Company drinking parties may have gradually resumed since Japan's coronavirus state of emergency was lifted in late May, but the country's entertainment districts have yet to get their bustle back as people continue to shy away from getting together in groups over infection fears.

"Although reservations for business meals have been slowly increasing, there are still few dining reservations for groups of six or more people. We'll likely be in this severe situation until around the summer," said 73-year-old Tomoe Nishikawa, who manages the Hakata Ishiyaki Osakaya restaurant in the Nakasu entertainment area in the city of Fukuoka, southwestern Japan.

Although the restaurant resumed business in late May, customer numbers have topped out at about 20% of pre-pandemic levels. The eatery has set up 80-centimeter-tall acrylic partitions across the middle of its tables so that diners can sit across from one another without risking infection. Nishikawa commented, "There are many company presidents who want to get back to eating out soon, but they are also worried about infection risks. More firms will use restaurants if executives can feel at ease. The Nakasu district is still empty at night. Establishments where groups go to eat first must work hard, or else the afterparty places will also struggle."

Among companies, there have been gradual moves to lift restrictions on drinking parties. Kyushu Electric Power Co. lifted its drinking party ban in June, under the condition that workers don't crowd together and shared food plates are avoided. Saibu Gas Co. also resumed lunch and dinner meetings with customers and clients from June.

In this June 11, 2020 photo, an acrylic partition is seen on a restaurant table as a coronavirus infection countermeasure in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

A department head at a Fukuoka bank in their 50s said that they planned to attend numerous business meals from mid-June onward, and commented, "This month, I can't yet invite people to meals from my side, but I will respond to invitations from clients." Their bank resumed holding business meals, though urgent ones only, in June. As there are numerous executive transfers around this time of the year, they say that they are getting more invitations for these meals.

However, these engagements are still few in number, and the bank continues to ban drinking parties among its employees. The ban remains over the bank's fears that its operations will stagnate if a group of its workers become infected. The department chief said, "We still can't hold welcome parties for subordinates who were transferred to the department in April."

One railway company employee told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There's a tacit understanding in the company that we should refrain from holding drinking parties, including those with people from outside the firm. This will likely continue until the end of the general shareholders' meeting in late June."

Though many company workers enjoy drinking together, trepidation over the coronavirus remains. Another man who works at a railway commented, "The virus may still be around, and my family also disapproves (of me going out for drinks)." Another person said, "It's still too early to invite people for drinks. The overall atmosphere in the company wouldn't allow it."

On the other hand, some workers told the Mainichi that continued social distancing has had its upsides. One said, "I've become healthier because I'm drinking less," while another said, "I've developed the habit of heading straight home." Others revealed that they aren't particularly insistent on holding in-person dinner parties, such as an employee of a beverage manufacturer who stated, "I hold online drinking parties with my colleagues and boss every week. Although I'd like to drink out too, online parties are also fun as I get to drink with colleagues who are far away."

One half of a couple running an izakaya bar in an alley in Fukuoka's Tenjin business district commented, "Although the seats are full during lunch, customers aren't returning at all at night. There are regular customers who say that they will be back in July, but we are also bracing for things to keep on like this."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Hisano, Munehisa Ishida and Yoshihiro Takahashi, Kyushu Business News Department)

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