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Tested: The Osaka 'masked meal' method splitting experts

Two Mainichi Shimbun reporters are seen practicing the "masked meal" method in Osaka's Fukushima Ward on April 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida)

OSAKA -- As a coronavirus prevention measure, the west Japan prefecture of Osaka is asking dining groups of two or more to take off their masks when eating, and to put them back on for talking. To test the method's practicality, two Mainichi Shimbun reporters had lunch according to the requirements.

    ***

    We visited Bistro Jin in Osaka's Fukushima Ward, which recommends customers have "masked meals." The tables have acrylic partitions, and to promote ventilation there are sensors measuring carbon dioxide concentration.

    At a time with no other customers around, we disinfected our hands, had our temperatures checked and ordered a four-course lunch menu. When we got to our seats, owner Shinya Mori, 35, gave each of us one of the nonwoven cloth masks they offer free to all customers. We put our own masks in a bag and wore the new ones.

    An assortment of appetizers came first; to taste the duck loin, I undid the mask's loop on my right ear and let it hang from my left ear. I was about to say how delicious it was when I realized I wasn't wearing my mask, and hurriedly put it back on.

    It was more difficult than I had imagined to leave a mask hanging off one ear. It feels like it's about to fall -- especially when you open your mouth wide. Since we had to wear masks to talk, our conversation didn't flow well.

    Finding the right timing to speak was the most difficult part. Even when the other reporter spoke to me, I couldn't reply without the mask. When I'd try to reattach my mask in a hurry, I'd end up almost touching its surface. Gradually both of us started to just give nods of approval, and an awkward silence, in which we just stared at each other, began to descend.

    We devoured the salad and bread; last came the tomato cream spaghetti. Though I carefully brought the pasta to my mouth with a fork, sauce got on my mask. But it also felt unhygienic to wear my old mask. We got tired of taking off and putting on our masks, and toward the end we'd almost stopped talking.

    During the roughly 50-minute lunch, we removed and put our masks back on 41 and 35 times, respectively; about once every 60 to 90 seconds.

    Though the masked meal method isn't impossible, I don't think I want to actively try it again. If there was alcohol, you would have to take off the masks more to drink, making it even harder. We realized it asks for more effort, like engaging in conversation after eating.

    A screenshot shows Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura promoting the "masked meal" method in a YouTube video.

    The bistro is asking customers to wear masks while eating, but some diners apparently stop wearing masks partway through. With a look of concern, Mori said, "It's hard to warn them unless they're regular customers, so we're still feeling our way through it. I wonder how long this will last."

    ***

    Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura promotes the mask meal method as "new table manners for group eating," and has requested that eateries in the city of Osaka ask customers to follow the practice as part of quasi-emergency measures that took effect in the city April 5. The request is effectively obligatory; businesses refusing to comply can be handed orders, and administrative fines can be imposed on those who do not obey.

    Eateries in the city of Osaka are required to publicize the masked meal method and to decline customers without masks on. The governor can impose civil fines of up to 200,000 yen (about $1,823) on businesses not complying with the orders without justifiable reason.

    However, many restaurant owners say it is difficult to make customers do it. Furthermore, Kizo Hisamoto, mayor of the city of Kobe, which is also subject to the quasi-emergency measures, does not recommend the masked meal method, saying that "if you repeatedly put on and take off a mask, you may come in contact with the virus."

    Experts are also divided on the new practice's efficacy. Kazunori Tomono, head of the coronavirus task force's expert panel at the Osaka Prefectural Government and chairman of infectious disease medicine at the Osaka Institute of Public Health, said, "Risk of infection is unavoidable when you eat with someone other than a family member. If you are going to eat with others, please practice the mask-wearing method."

    He added, "If you wear a mask when you talk, you can considerably suppress droplet numbers. The best way to protect yourself and others is to let the mask dangle from the ear. I hope this practice spreads throughout society as etiquette to protect others."

    Meanwhile, Koichiro Yoshida, chairman of Kindai University Hospital's infections control office, pointed out, "It looks good on paper, but the term 'masked meal' is taking on a life of its own. If the public mistakes the message as meaning masked meals are definitely safe, then it will have the opposite effect." Touching on the fact that new cases are surging in Osaka Prefecture, Yoshida warned that "now is the time to ask people to stop eating in groups."

    (Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa, Sachiko Miyakawa and Ryo Chatani Osaka City News Department; Yuki Noguchi, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)

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