• Kyodo


Drive-thru services in Japan, once limited mainly to takeout meals, have begun to include tests for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and face mask distribution as the country continues to battle the virus pandemic.

For food service operators, meanwhile, drive-thru offers hope for retaining customers as people increasingly practice social distancing and avoid conventional outlets.

The country has yet to introduce nationwide drive-thru testing for the virus that causes COVID-19, but the cities of Niigata and Nagoya adopted the method in March. Doctors and medical staff in protective gear stand outside cars to check people, going through a list of diagnostic questions and taking swabs from their throats.

The speed of the process as well as the advantage cars offer to avoid crowds have drawn attention.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday he would consider introducing roadside testing hubs as he pledged to double the nation’s virus testing capacity to 20,000 samples a day, shortly after declaring a state of emergency for Tokyo and Osaka as well as five other prefectures.

South Korea has been aggressively conducting drive-thru testing since February, followed by countries such as the United States, Brazil, the U.K., Italy, Malaysia, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

Japan has been criticized domestically and internationally for not conducting virus tests more broadly, which makes it difficult to accurately assess the COVID-19 prevalence rate.

In Ibaraki Prefecture, the town of Sakai and the city of Joso have delivered face masks to local residents through a drive-thru system.

“People can’t help but congregate if they have to get in line (physically). We were able to provide masks quickly and there was no disorder,” said a Joso official in charge of the distribution.

With people asked to refrain from unnecessary outings to curb the virus spread, the food industry has made a greater effort to retain customers with drive-thru services.

Mos Food Services Inc., operator of the Mos Burger chain, already improved buns and packaging for drive-thru customers in October, when the nation’s consumption tax hike made it more expensive to dine in than take out.

The percentage of takeaway customers, including those who buy meals from their car windows, rose to 70 percent from 60 percent after the coronavirus hit the country, according to the company.

“We don’t foresee an increase in the number of people eating at our stores, so we’d like to focus on takeout,” said an official of the burger chain.

High-end food is taking a similar route. A restaurant at Hotel Happoen Shika no Yu, at the Fujimi Kogen highland resort in Nagano Prefecture, has started a lunch drive-thru.

Many orders have been made from residents of nearby villas, and the hotel said it wants to deliver “the chef’s taste.”

The virus is also changing ways people enjoy the nation’s hanami cherry-blossom viewing. Many people have posted pictures of blossoms on Twitter, with the hashtag “drive-thru hanami.”

One popular spot is a 20-kilometer drive lined with 6,500 cherry trees in Aomori Prefecture, considered by locals as “the world’s best” for cherry-blossom viewing. The blooms are yet to appear in the region.

“There is no hint of a festival, and no one will be physically congregating there,” said Shinkichi Oyama, a senior official at a local tourist association.

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