Hitoshi Tamura makes sure the curry restaurants he operates in Tomakomai, a city in Hokkaido, take all the necessary precautions against COVID-19.
Those who enter are asked to wear masks, disinfect their hands and measure their temperatures. Transparent plastic panels stand between cashiers and customers to block any pathogen-laced droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. Guests are given numbered tags and asked to pick up their orders so they don’t need to flag down servers.
But the dry and often freezing climate of the winter months is proving to be challenging as restaurants, shops and other facilities scramble to keep their premises sufficiently ventilated, a vital measure in reducing the risk of indoor transmission as new coronavirus cases soar to record highs.
“This wasn’t an issue during the summer, but this winter, it’s just too cold over here. We turn up the heat when we periodically let outside air in, but that’s not enough to keep the venues warm,” says Tamura, owner of Tam House Curry Lab, a small restaurant chain specializing in both orthodox curry and soup curry — steaming hot bowls of curry flavored soup invented in Hokkaido, often served with fall-off-the-bone chicken and a variety of vegetables.
Temperatures in Tomakomai have been hovering below zero degrees Celsius in recent days, sometimes diving under minus 10 degrees.
“We use kerosene stoves since air conditioners aren’t powerful enough, but the heating costs are insane,” Tamura says. “And for customers sitting near the entrance, the cold draft seeping in can be uncomfortable.”
Japan confirmed 2,945 new coronavirus cases on Sunday as the third wave of infections continues to sweep through the archipelago. Large cities in Hokkaido, known for its heavy snowfalls and frigid winters, as well as dense urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka have seen surges in COVID-19 transmissions since November.
That month, the capital raised its virus alert to the highest of four levels and subsequently requested that restaurants and other establishments serving alcohol close at 10 p.m. until Jan.11.
And with the situation expected to worsen during the winter season, the government has been stressing the importance of ventilating closed, indoor spaces.
Airplanes and hospitals typically have advanced ventilation systems that can swiftly filter out potentially harmful particles. But many other buildings often have less sophisticated systems in place, making the spread of the disease more likely. Maintaining a good flow of fresh air is key to moving infectious particles out of a closed space. The health ministry recommends opening doors and windows at least twice an hour to purge stale air.
During a news conference on Nov. 9, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s coronavirus response, brought with him a digital sensor that can measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Since the virus travels through the air, higher carbon dioxide levels in a room can mean there is a greater probability of transmission if an infected person is inside.
“1,000 ppm (parts per million) is considered one standard for buildings. Right now this place is 640 ppm so we know it’s very well ventilated,” he said. “Since I’m speaking now, the level is rising and it just surpassed 900 ppm,” he continued.
“I’d like people to make an effort to use these devices to improve ventilation and air flow even if it is cold.”
Sensing an opportunity, Maspro Denkoh Corp., a maker of antennas and other TV receiving equipment, last month began selling a carbon dioxide detector that can be hung on walls. The device can be connected to computers and tablet devices to monitor temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels and is priced at approximately ¥50,000 ($480).
“We’ve already sold around 500 to 600 of these sensors, many to restaurants and fitness gyms,” says Kohei Marui, a sales representative in charge of the product called SGTHA-CO2.
Similarly, Nagano Prefecture-based T&D Corp. has been selling a table-top carbon dioxide detector called RTR-576, priced at ¥56,000. “Inquiries have grown by four to five times compared to prepandemic levels,” says Koji Mimura, a salesperson at the company.
Traditional Japanese architecture relies on wood and open space to ensure proper ventilation against humidity and mold. While such designs promise relatively cool and comfortable summers, it means cold and often freezing winters for inhabitants. Modern housing units prevalent in urban centers and colder regions feature far superior insulation by comparison, but in sacrifice of natural air flow.
Daikin Industries Ltd., the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioners, has introduced new models complete with technology to bring outside air indoors. Most air conditioners, perhaps unbeknownst to many consumers, only circulate air indoors.
The first of the new wall-mounted models, the flagship Urusara X and Urusara mini, were released on Nov. 1, and will be followed by a standard wall-mounted model and cassette and floor standing units at the end of March 2021. These air conditioners are capable of drawing in fresh air ducted from outside, while a humidification unit takes in outdoor moisture with fresh air to humidify the room while ventilating.
“We give a detailed guide on proper ventilation methods and how air conditioners function on our website,” says Akihiro Tokuchi, a spokesperson for the company. “The great number of visitors to the site seems to reflect how concerned people are about ventilation.”
These advanced air conditioners, however, can be expensive. An Urusara X for a 14-tatami-mat room, for example, is listed at ¥198,000 on price comparison site Kakaku.com. The standard price for a cassette-type unit for the same space is ¥520,000, according to a Daikin press release.
To promote the installation of high-function ventilation equipment, the environment ministry has earmarked ¥3 billion to offer subsidies to restaurants and supermarkets. For small and midsize companies, up to ¥10 million will be subsidized for two-thirds of the costs. More than 1,000 applications were received during the enrollment period in June and July, with around 850 facilities chosen as recipients.
Still, that’s a tiny fraction of the restaurant industry. And in addition to the hassle of investing in ventilation systems, stay at home requests and the suspension of sales of meal vouchers in Tokyo, Hokkaido and eight other prefectures under the government’s Go To Eat program means many restaurants are facing a bleak winter.
According to Tokyo Shoko Research, as many as 87.8% of companies in Japan will not hold year-end or new year drinking parties, delivering a significant blow to restaurants that typically look forward to the busiest time of the year.
For some, the situation has prompted the necessity to cultivate new revenue streams that won’t involve interpersonal contact. “I’m focusing on shifting the weight of our operation toward online sales,” says Tamura, the restaurant owner in Tomakomai. “I’m anticipating that the pandemic won’t be going away anytime soon.”
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