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Bento boxes and boredom: A visit to a Japan hotel for people with mild COVID-19 symptoms

Staff at Hotel Maruji are seen preparing bento meals for coronavirus-infected individuals with allergies, in Utsunomiya on Jan. 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Kanako Watanabe)

UTSUNOMIYA -- In May 2020, Hotel Maruji in the center of this east Japan city became the first hotel in Tochigi Prefecture to repurpose itself as a facility for people recovering from mild and symptomless cases of coronavirus infection.

    How do people convalescing at places like this pass the time? How are staff helping them? The Mainichi Shimbun went to the hotel to find out firsthand.

    The Hotel Maruji, headed by Haruo Fukuda, has a total of 123 rooms. Of them, 111 are reserved for people recovering from COVID-19 to stay in, and general customers are not being accepted.

    Until November 2020 they received just nine people, but an infection surge in December brought the total to 120. This month, a total of around 260 people had stayed at the hotel due to coronavirus infection as of Jan. 27, and when the Mainichi Shimbun visited, 50 people were occupying rooms. Initially the hotel focused primarily on receiving asymptomatic individuals, but now people with minor symptoms are the main guests.

    The decision to permit a person to stay at the hotel must be made by a public health center and a doctor. Generally, guests are expected to spend 10 days at the facility, and they are required to stay until they test negative.

    There have been cases of people leaving after a night, and others who remained on the premises for around two weeks. It was reported that there were also guests taken to hospital after their health deteriorated.

    When there were few people being admitted, the hotel would wait for two weeks after guests had left before conducting full disinfection work on all floors of the building, followed by staff cleaning the rooms. But with the hotel now forced to take in numbers several times their previous totals, disinfection and cleaning work takes place a day after the person has checked out.

    Haruhisa Fukuda, the managing director at Hotel Maruji, is seen talking about the conditions faced by people recovering from coronavirus infection, on Jan. 27, 2021 in Utsunomiya. (Mainichi/Kanako Watanabe)

    Hotel Maruji reached peak capacity in mid-January. A sense of pressure emerged when they'd reached the point of having about 80 rooms full. They also received complaints such as, "If you've got empty rooms, then let more in!" Haruhisa Fukuda, the hotel's 47-year-old managing director, said, "This is unlike our usual business, offering accommodation for recovery is a special case."

    The hotel's banquet hall on the third floor has been converted into a storage space, and guest rooms are also occupied by nurses, government employees and others. Rooms on the fourth to sixth floors are reserved for people with the coronavirus.

    Guests clean their own rooms and make their own beds. In the day until 8 p.m., guests are permitted to leave their rooms and move around the floor they're on. Burnable plastic trash cans have been laid out. To remove the waste, prefectural government workers in protective suits wrap the entire trash cans in plastic bags. People attempting to leave the hotel have also been stopped by security staff.

    Individuals recovering at the hotel can't leave, and many of them pass the time watching TV, using the internet or reading books. The one thing they have to look forward to is the meals.

    On the day the Mainichi Shimbun visited, the breakfast bento boxes contained grilled horse mackerel in miso, tamagoyaki folded egg, sausage, simmered food and fruit. The lunch bento was pork steak, kinpira burdock root marinated with salted rice malt, rice and pickled food. For dinner, guests were treated to a fried food assortment, burdock root with pickled plum, soup, rice and opera cake.

    The meals are delivered at 7 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. respectively, and staff distribute the bento boxes by placing them individually on chairs set up outside the rooms. Some of the guests have allergies, and of the 50 meal allocations on Jan. 27, six were altered to suit allergen requirements.

    Haruhisa Fukuda said, "We want to keep thinking about how we can make the time people convalescing spend here at least a bit calmer; it's a harsh and difficult situation for them both mentally and physically."

    (Japanese original by Kanako Watanabe, Utsunomiya Bureau)

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