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'Take off your mask': Diners' demands cause headaches for Japanese eatery

Kagoshima Mayor Takao Shimozuru, right, is seen appealing to residents to cooperate with the infection prevention of local restaurants during a press conference held at the Kagoshima Municipal Government office in Kagoshima on Dec. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Ran Kanno)

KAGOSHIMA -- In an indictment of the gap in concern restaurant staff and some customers have for the state of new coronavirus infections, a press conference held by this southwest Japan city's government revealed that while a local eatery has been the site of a cluster of infections, some diners at the unspecified business had requested service staff remove their masks.

    The information released by the Kagoshima Municipal Government portrayed businesses as working hard to prevent infections while some customers act complacently. Amid questions over how businesses should respond to similar requests from patrons, frustrated business owners expressed their concerns.

    On Dec. 10, the city government announced at a press conference that a new infection cluster had been confirmed in the city. The name of the business involved was not publicized, meaning that any detailed circumstances or links between infections and customers asking for mask removals remain unknown. However, the city government did say that there had been instances of masks being taken off when dealing with diners.

    In all, cluster infections have been confirmed at 15 locations in Kagoshima Prefecture, and as of Dec. 29, 54 infections have been linked to the restaurant.

    Additionally, the city government also cited the example of other eateries it has received reports from, who have told authorities their staff were asked by customers to remove their face guards or customers took down transparent acrylic boards dividing dining groups.

    In response to the spread of infections in the city of Kagoshima, the local government has been requesting that dining businesses entertaining customers take a register of people who have used their services in case a cluster of infections develops. It also set up a special venue in the city's Tenmonkan shopping area where restaurant workers received polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests in groups. Businesses are doing their bit too, with measures including installing circulator fans to ensure restaurants are ventilated, and putting up acrylic boards to prevent droplet infections.

    Meanwhile, the term "mask kaishoku," loosely translating to "meals with masks," has become more widespread, and infection prevention measures are advancing at eateries. However, it's not necessarily the case that customers' actions and ethical views match with the efforts of businesses.

    One restaurant manager in the city of Kagoshima opened up about the difficulties of maintaining a business while custom is down, and the ways they are sometimes forced to comply with diners' demands, saying, "If business was booming we'd be able to say, 'We don't need those kinds of customers,' but when we've no one else to serve we can't hurt their feelings, and it becomes difficult to deny customers' requests."

    Regarding eateries' infection prevention measures, the Kagoshima city public health center said those measures "should be implemented voluntarily based on guidelines set by industry groups and other bodies." It is of course the role of the city government to take a wide range of measures to prevent infection, but it is difficult for it to intervene in the relationship between individual restaurants and their customers to call for a certain type of behavior.

    On Dec. 28, Kagoshima Mayor Takao Shimozuru issued a message to the city's residents, saying, "Taking thorough steps with basic infection prevention measures leads to the protection of yourselves, the people around you who are important to you, and even the shops you value and visit frequently. Let's go back to the basics and turn again to taking thorough infection prevention measures." It goes without saying that each citizen's awareness is crucial in preventing infections from spreading any further.

    (Japanese original by Ran Kanno, Kagoshima Bureau)

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