Japan eateries struggle with ventilation requirement in winter to battle Covid-19

People gather at an izakaya restaurant during a rainy evening in Tokyo on Oct 7, 2020.
People gather at an izakaya restaurant during a rainy evening in Tokyo on Oct 7, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As izakaya pubs and other eateries struggle to stay open amid the Covid-19 outbreak, they are now coming face to face with the challenge of keeping their premises sufficiently ventilated before full-blown winter arrives.

With government measures calling for increased indoor ventilation to reduce the chances of infections, cold winds blowing through establishments that cannot afford to install ventilation systems could see further losses of customers.

"We put a lot of effort into ventilation, but how can we prevent the cold of a Hokkaido winter," Mr Shingo Kato, 36, the manager of an izakaya in downtown Sapporo, said in a bewildered tone.

Sapporo saw its first snow of the year on Nov 4, and since the beginning of November there have been days when the minimum temperature fell below zero in the city.

In the izakaya, the front and back doors are left open to let the wind pass through. Customers are guided to seats close to the heating system, and a lap blanket is given to those who wish to use one.

"So far, customers won't freeze if they sit near the heater. But I am worried about customers enduring the cold in the middle of winter," Mr Kato said.

At a press conference on Nov 7, Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki said: "It is necessary to present effective measures through investigation and research by government experts."

The government has demanded that air be constantly ventilated, even in cold weather, using a ventilation fan or other equipment, and that windows be opened if no such equipment is installed.

The Environment Ministry has established a system to subsidise restaurants and supermarkets when they install highly functional equipment to ventilate rooms without losing heat. For this system, 3 billion yen (S$39 million) was earmarked in this fiscal year's supplementary budget.

In the case of facilities run by small and midsize companies, up to 10 million yen will be subsidised for two-thirds of the costs. During the enrolment period in June and July, more than 1,000 applications were received, and it was decided that about 850 facilities would receive subsidies.

In early October, the El Rocio bar in Shinjuku in Tokyo introduced a system to allow ventilation while maintaining room temperature, using a subsidy from the Environment Ministry. It cost the bar about 1 million yen to improve the ventilation, including the cost to replace the fan in the kitchen, which is not covered by the subsidy.

El Rocio's owner Asako Kamisaka, 36, said: "When you hear the word "bar", you may get the impression that this is a poorly ventilated area. I wanted to create an environment where customers can drink safely in a heated restaurant before the cold weather gets serious."

Unfortunately, the Environment Ministry has already reached its budget limit, and many still-struggling restaurants cannot afford to install high-performance ventilation systems on their own.

At the stand-up tavern Akashiya in Chiyoda in Tokyo, owner Tamotsu Iwasa, 85, opened the doors at its two entrances and placed a pair of fans to circulate the air. Sales in October were less than half of the same period of last year. Under these circumstances, it is financially challenging to install better ventilation equipment.

"I have no choice but to take all possible measures by making use of something on hand. I want the national and local governments to support the cost of installing ventilation equipment," Mr Iwasa said.