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A group of about 20 restaurants in Yokohama's Chinatown started a drive-thru service Wednesday as part of efforts to retain customers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Customers who order by telephone in advance can pick up hot meals from the restaurants at a nearby parking complex, according to the Yokohama Chinatown Development Association, which has about 400 restaurants and shops as members.

Nobumasa Takahashi, chairman of the association, does not expect customer traffic to Yokohama's Chinatown, the largest in Japan, to return to levels prior to the pandemic in the coming year.

"We have to try a new way of doing business as we brace for a post-coronavirus society," said Takahashi, 61.

Even during the Golden Week holidays earlier this month, many businesses were shuttered in the district, one of the three major Chinatowns in Japan, the others being in Kobe and Nagasaki.

On May 4, Ye Yunxia, who works at Chinese restaurant Mankinro, said, "Our business has dried up, even though now is the time when customers usually visit the most."

Ye said the 300-seat restaurant is normally filled with customers during the annual holidays, but it closed earlier than usual this year and asked all of its more than 10 part-time staff to take days off.

"There are no people in the streets in the first place," Ye said.

The number of visitors to Chinatown started to decrease in January when Japan's first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, on a false rumor circulating that the patient was from the area.

In March, a number of restaurants in the popular tourism destination received hate mail blaming Chinese people for spreading the pneumonia-causing virus and telling them to "get out of Japan soon."

In the wake of the incidents, Kaiinkaku, one of the restaurants targeted, temporarily drew crowds of customers who wanted to show their support and encourage staff.

Still, the number of visitors to the area in March dropped to around one-tenth of normal traffic.

Around 80 percent of the association's member businesses have remained closed since April. On April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared an initial state of emergency through May 6, covering seven prefectures with relatively high numbers of infections, including Tokyo, Osaka and Kanagawa.

The declaration, requesting people stay at home as much as possible, was widened to all 47 prefectures on April 16.

It was later extended until May 31 and four of the association's member restaurants have decided to discontinue business, weighed down by labor costs and rent.

In an attempt to overcome the hardship, the association came up with the joint drive-thru service to reduce person-to-person contact and help reassure customers.

Takeshi Tsuruoka, president of Cantonese restaurant Kitcho, which has logged a monthly deficit of more than ¥1.5 million in recent months, expressed hope for the new style of business.

"As we want to increase sales by any means possible, I appreciate the new service, as it is not like delivery that requires additional work," he said.

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