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Law places Japanese hotels in quandary when encountering guests with fevers

A hotel employee, left, checks the temperature of a worker from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward, in southwestern Japan, on Aug. 6, 2020. The ministry conducted a sampling survey at accommodation facilities participating in the Go To Travel subsidy campaign, to check what measures they have in place to prevent novel coronavirus infections. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Hisano)
A notice at the front desk of a hotel in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka requests guests with fevers or coughs to refrain from visiting, in this photo taken on Aug. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Hisano)

FUKUOKA -- As the government's "Go To Travel" domestic tourism campaign marches on (minus Tokyo), accommodation operators across Japan are implementing coronavirus infection prevention measures including taking guests' temperatures. However, if they turn anyone away without knowing for certain they have an infectious disease, they could be breaking the law.

    Japan's Hotel Business Act prohibits hoteliers from denying people accommodation simply for health reasons, such as a high temperature.

    "If someone does have a fever, can we tell them to go home?" pondered the head of one hot spring inn in a mountainous region of the Kyushu area in southwestern Japan. After closing during the national state of emergency earlier this year, the inn reopened in May. When guests enter the inn, their health is checked by the staff, including taking their temperatures. With thorough disinfection measures in place, the number of guests has started to increase again. But what is to be done if a prospective guest has a temperature? The Hotel Business Act flashes across the mind of the inn's manager.

    Article 5 of the act states that hoteliers must not deny people lodging except in certain cases, such as it being "evident that the person seeking lodging has an infectious disease." In other words, unless it is "evident" that the person is infected with the coronavirus, then they cannot be refused accommodation on health grounds, even if they have a high fever.

    "There are requests for people's temperatures to be checked, but guests who have fevers cannot be refused a room. Amid the turmoil of COVID-19, there's a chasm between the Hotel Business Act and the actual situation at hotels," lamented an executive of one group in the hospitality industry. There was in fact one case in the city of Naha in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa in which a traveler suspected to have the coronavirus was turned away before they had tested positive for the virus. In July, the Naha Municipal Government notified hotels that guests could be turned away only if an infectious disease was evident, and requested that they uphold the Hotel Business Act.

    The government launched the Go To campaign on July 22 as an emergency economic measure. While some local government heads criticized the campaign as having started too early, the government decided to push ahead with it while making reinforcement of measures to prevent coronavirus infections a prerequisite. Tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba stated that the campaign represented "a major challenge in establishing a new style of traveling in an age with COVID-19," and said that conducting temperature checks and having other infection-prevention measures in place were conditions for receiving Go To subsidies.

    The designated prevention measures, however, are vague. For example, if a person has a temperature of 37.5 degrees Celsius or more, the hotel is supposed to consult a public health center. But there are no concrete rules on what to do following that consultation. Even if a person is suspected to be infected with the coronavirus, it takes time before that person can be seen by a medical facility and get their PCR test results. While they are waiting, the decision on whether to accommodate the person and any companions is left up to the hotel.

    The All Japan Ryokan Hotel Association reported that one association under its umbrella had contacted a public health center when a guest with a fever was found, but the health center told the establishment to consult a regular hospital. It was also reported that it was not easy to get an examination even by contacting medical facilities.

    Sandwiched between the Go To campaign, which insists on measures to prevent coronavirus infections, and the Hotel Business Act, which prohibits hoteliers from turning guests away easily, how has the hotel industry coped with the dilemma?

    "We have guests wait in a designated, isolated room," said one hotel in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka, which also operates in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

    One hot spring inn in Saga Prefecture, also in western Japan, similarly has an isolated room to place feverish guests, as it can't turn them away under the law, it says. There are other inns that indicate on their websites or through other means that they ask guests with fevers to refrain from staying.

    The Oita ryokan hotel association in southwestern Japan, which represents hot spring areas such as Beppu and Yufuin, on Aug. 12 produced its own manual including a health checklist produced in collaboration with a local public health center, and released the manual to its members.

    "Even under normal circumstances, there are people who are healthy when they set out on a trip, but develop a fever later. People should not just be turned away," said one official involved in making the manual. To help people in that position, they are given information on medical facilities where they can get treatment even on public holidays.

    Due to the confusion in the travel industry, there have been calls for a revision of the Hotel Business Act. But the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare maintains there are currently no moves in that direction.

    The law came into effect in 1948. The reason it firmly bans hoteliers from refusing to provide lodgings is to prevent discrimination based on a person's race or disabilities. Yusuke Takamiya, a lawyer who is familiar with the hotel law, commented, "In addition to its historical background, there are cases in mountainous areas and other such places where not being able to get a room can put the guest's life in danger. Caution is necessary in revising the law."

    When it comes to the response to guests with fevers amid the COVID-19 crisis, Takamiya comments, "There are cases in which refusing accommodation to a person who really wants to stay there is illegal, so the only thing to do is to make efforts according to the circumstances, such as suggesting that the guest give up on staying there, while expressing concern for their health."

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Hisano, Kyushu Business News Department)

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