National

Japan braces for Chinese New Year tourist influx as concerns over coronavirus grow

by Satoshi Sugiyama and Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writers

With throngs of Chinese tourists arriving in Japan for the Lunar New Year holidays on Friday amid growing fears over a new coronavirus, authorities bolstered screenings at airports, airlines were urged to distribute health declarations and businesses issued warnings to their employees.

The health ministry in Tokyo revealed a man in his 40s visiting from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus, the second case in the country.

The man was admitted to a hospital in Tokyo on Wednesday after experiencing persistent fever and a sore throat. He initially felt symptoms while in China on Jan. 14. He is in stable condition.

The number of people in China infected by the pneumonia-like virus has dramatically increased, numbering more than a thousand, while the death toll had risen to at least 41, government sources said Saturday.

On Friday evening, the Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory urging Japanese citizens not to visit Wuhan, raising the alert level to three on a four-point scale.

The government convened a meeting earlier in the day to discuss further measures. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered Cabinet ministers to beef up screening and inspection measures at entry points and also inside the country — including requesting airlines to make in-flight announcements and distribute health declaration forms to passengers on all flights originating in China. He also ordered the expansion of testing facilities at public health centers nationwide.

“I ask Japanese citizens not to panic, exercise preventive practices against the common cold and stay calm,” Abe said.

Separately, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Akihiro Nishimura told reporters during a news conference that a Japanese man in his 60s is being treated for pneumonia at a hospital in Wuhan. He was hospitalized on Wednesday after having a fever since around Jan. 16.

It has not yet been confirmed if the man’s pneumonia is linked to the coronavirus, but Nishimura said test results will be known as soon as Saturday.

The World Health Organization has called for countermeasures but fell short of declaring the outbreak “a global emergency.” Additional cases have also been reported in Thailand and the United States.

In a desperate measure to contain the virus from spreading further, authorities in Wuhan suspended public transportation services on Thursday.

More than 700 Japanese citizens either reside in Wuhan or are visiting the city, Nishimura said, adding the government will provide necessary accommodation and information to them.

According to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, more than 7 million overseas trips will be made during the seven-day holiday period through Jan. 30, compared with 6.3 million last year. Chinese online travel agency Trip.com said Japan is their top foreign destination, followed by Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Sun Jian, a 24-year-old tourist from Shanghai, arrived around noon Friday wearing a green surgical mask at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Sun said he is not so worried about the infection back home or in Tokyo as he believes the Chinese government will be able to control the situation.

“I think I’m OK at the moment, but I will take care of myself,” he said, adding that he will probably buy more masks during his stay in the capital.

Sun said he saw many other passengers on the flight from Shanghai wearing masks.

Wuhan’s lock down caused airlines to cancel flights to the city, including one by All Nippon Airways that was scheduled to depart at 9:30 a.m. on Friday for Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture. Flights to Japan from Shanghai have not been canceled as of yet.

In Japan, theme park operators, retailers and restaurants are instructing employees to be careful.

Oriental Land Co., which operates Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, has not taken any special measures against the virus, but is encouraging employees to wash their hands and gargle as part of the usual health management program. Alcohol-based disinfectants will be available at restrooms for park visitors and workers.

The operator of Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was asking its employees to take similar precautions.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is providing disinfectants for visitors at three locations near the entrance to Toyosu fish market, a popular destination for foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, multiple Japanese firms are canceling employee business trips to China. NTT Docomo Inc., Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. and Toyota Tsusho Corp. revealed Thursday they have instructed their employees to refrain from going on nonurgent business trips to the country.

An affiliate of major travel agency JTB Corp. has canceled tours to and from Wuhan scheduled for February and March.

Japanese firms based in Wuhan — such as Denso Corp., which develops automobile software in the city — have banned all employees from traveling to the region. MUFG Bank Ltd. and Mizuho Bank, Ltd., both of which have branches in the area, have notified their employees in Japan not to make business trips. KDDI Corp., which maintains an office there, ordered employees to stand by at home.

Firms that make face masks in Japan have stepped up production on the back of booming demand by Chinese tourists.

Department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. is making sure its staff observe thorough hygienic practices and that they understand how to handle any customer who displays symptoms of the illness, including telling them where the closest medical institution is.

It is also providing disposable masks and gloves for staff members in case customers vomit while on the premises.

“We are informing the staff of the protocol because those who have not encountered such a situation would be at a loss about what to do,” a company spokeswoman said. So far, Isetan Mitsukoshi has not formulated a measure specifically for customers at its stores, instead relying on them informing staff members if they feel ill while on the premises.

Some hotels have gone further in attempts to pre-empt the virus’s spread.

JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo in Hokkaido, which receives its largest numbers of foreign guests in January and February, began disinfecting elevator buttons and door knobs in lobbies and other public spaces last Saturday.

On Thursday, it also put up a poster in four languages, including Chinese, urging guests to let hotel staff know if they have a temperature exceeding 37.5 degrees and a cough.

The poster was “intended to encourage guests to come forward” if they are experiencing such symptoms, said Masahiko Nakamura, the hotel’s marketing manager.

This step was taken in response to a notification from the Sapporo Municipal Government to hotels, outlining ways to manage guests from Wuhan who may show symptoms of the illness. The notification advises hotels to ask any guest who is feeling unwell to remain inside their room and report the cases to a public health center, said Ryo Yamaguchi, a city official in charge of infectious disease prevention.

Nakamura said his hotel is trying to stay ahead of the coronavirus threat. At the same time, it “told staff members not to be too anxious.”

He said nearly 70 percent of guests at the hotel in January and February are foreign nationals due to the Lunar New Year holiday and the Sapporo Snow Festival.

This year the annual ice sculpture event will be held in the city from Jan. 31 to Feb. 11.

Major airports nationwide displayed posters alerting travelers from Wuhan who have symptoms of the virus to contact quarantine officers. Officials are checking body temperatures via thermographic monitoring more carefully than usual by limiting the number of travelers passing through the quarantine area at the same time.

Health ministry official Takuma Kato has said measures against the infection are necessary but “excessive caution is not.”

He said people can prevent infection by taking the same care they would for a regular cold and flu.

“The best way to prevent it is to wash hands, wear masks when you are coughing, and ventilate a room properly,” he said.

Information from Kyodo added

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