National

Cardboard boxes replace hotel rooms at Narita as Japan struggles with returnees

by Jesse Chase-Lubitz

Staff writer

Travel restrictions are keeping Narita Airport — Japan’s gateway to the world — eerily quiet. Over the past week or so, the usual bustle from international travelers has been replaced with something else: cardboard beds.

At a glance, it looks like an evacuation shelter. The so-called “cardboard village” is spread throughout the arrivals section of the airport, skirting around the baggage claim conveyor belts and triggering worries about whether there is enough space between beds.

Though Japan seemed to avoid the first wave of COVID-19 infections in March, cases have skyrocketed over the last two weeks — with the number of new infections logged daily sometimes doubling from one day to the next. In an effort to curb the rise, the country stopped accepting foreign nationals from 73 countries and regions on April 3, and began testing every arriving passenger for COVID-19.

Under the new rules, most passengers were allowed to travel on to their intended destinations if a family member or friend could pick them up, or they were checked into nearby hotels.

But as hotels ran out of rooms, the government started building makeshift cardboard beds, with futons laid on top, inside the airport.

“Until a few days ago, hotels near (the airport) were still available but all the rooms are full right now,” a quarantine officer said earlier this month.

Immigration officers say the beds are filling quickly.

A cardboard bed that is being used to temporarily quarantine passengers as they wait for their coronavirus test results is seen at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on April 9 in this photo obtained from social media. | TWITTER/@WASABI1094 / VIA REUTERS
A cardboard bed that is being used to temporarily quarantine passengers as they wait for their coronavirus test results is seen at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on April 9 in this photo obtained from social media. | TWITTER/@WASABI1094 / VIA REUTERS

Some passengers have to stay for at least two days to get their test results before they are able to use public transportation — assuming their result is negative. Quarantine officers assisting with tests at Narita arrange transportation to medical institutions if those who have tested positive need to be admitted to a hospital.

The airport is otherwise strikingly deserted, with around seven airport staff and two police officers assigned to each empty security lane.

Narita Airport closed down one of two runways on Sunday due to the declining number of arriving and departing passengers. The airport saw 3,661 international flights in the week from Jan. 19 to Jan. 25. But the tally sank to 582 by the week from March 29 to April 4, according to Narita International Airport Corp., the operator of the transportation hub.

Kaoru Matsuoka, 27, arrived at 3:30 p.m. on April 8 from Canada, and spent seven hours at Narita before being assigned a bed. She spent two of those hours on a parked plane, another hour in line to get tested, and four hours waiting to be brought to the bed area. Matsuoka then stayed until 3:00 a.m., when her parents arrived from their home in Osaka to pick her up.

When she learned that the hotel rooms had been filled, she agreed to stay in the airport overnight. “I had no choice,” she said.

While waiting to be brought to the beds, one woman told an officer that someone was coughing badly, Matsuoka said. But the officer said that they were not required to do anything as the individual had already passed the health check.

When individuals asked where they were going to be taken next and when, officers did not give clear answers. “We were just waiting there even though we didn’t know why we were waiting or how long we had to wait,” Matsuoka said.

At around 10:30 p.m., she was finally brought by bus to the area with the cardboard beds.

Matsuoka said that the open-air beds were placed 1.5 to 2 meters apart. Because individuals were sent there before knowing their test results, someone with the virus could have been sleeping nearby.

In addition, the lights were not turned off at night and the food provided was lacking.

“When I first got to the place with beds there was only emergency food, like canned bread and bottled water,” she said. “Nobody took the canned bread so the staff brought us some onigiri (rice balls) from a convenience store.” There wasn’t very much, so she only took one.

She said she feels fortunate that her parents drove the eight hours from Osaka to pick her up. If they weren’t able to do that, she would have had to wait in the airport for two days to get her results and then book a hotel room on her own dime.

“It seems like their plan was messed up,” Matsuoka said. “They were not ready.”

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