TOKYO: Japan is singling out alcohol consumption in bars and restaurants in a new state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures, a response that highlights experts' belief that alcohol can help accelerate transmission of COVID-19.
The move is a departure for Japan, which in two previous pandemic emergency declarations did not impose specific curbs on alcohol.
"When alcohol is involved, people's voices get a lot bigger," said Makoto Tsubokura, who leads a team at research giant Riken and Kobe University that uses supercomputers to model infection situations.
Loud voices, plus lapses in hygiene and a tendency to linger at the bar, all contributed to increased risk of aerosol contagion, Tsubokura added.
Under the state of emergency for Apr 25 to May 11, the government will require restaurants, bars, and karaoke parlours serving alcohol in the designated prefectures to close, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said.
Social gatherings with drinking are situations the government is focusing on with its new guidelines, according to Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet official guiding Japan's pandemic response. The scientific mechanism for contagion needs more research, he added.
Much of the country had already been under infection control measures that included shortened business hours and guidelines that restaurant patrons be separated by acrylic partitions.
While the economy has suffered from the pandemic, restaurants and bars have been hit particularly hard. Global-Dining, the operator of more than 40 restaurants, said on Friday it would not comply with the government's request to shorten hours unless ordered to do so.
The company sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last month, claiming that its infection control measures were unfair and unscientific. Restaurant chains Saizeriya and Skylark Holdings said they will remain open while complying with the alcohol ban, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Friday.
Most health experts say that a general adherence to hygiene rules and social distancing have helped Japan keep overall COVID-19 cases and deaths relatively low, without the kind of rigid lockdowns seen in other countries.
In April last year, the World Health Organization warned that alcohol could dampen one's immune response to COVID-19. But it remains unclear if the act of drinking itself helps to spread the virus.
"Alcohol is potentially a physical risk to the person through an increased risk of aspiration of droplets," said Jason Tetro, and infectious disease specialist based in Edmonton, Canada.
"But it is more of a social risk in that it reduces the adherence to prevention techniques due to intoxication."