With food delivery services booming in the wake of an outbreak of the new coronavirus, drivers, who have contact with various people on a daily basis, have been forced to make a tough choice on whether to wear protective face masks.
Some say covering their nose and mouth with a mask is essential to avoid human-to-human transmission of the pneumonia-causing virus when receiving and delivering products, but some are concerned that concealing their face could displease customers.
(Supermarket delivery drivers on their motorbikes with produce for customers in Shanghai on March 3, 2020.)
"We may be infected with the new coronavirus and also may transfer it to others. It is natural for us to wear a face mask under the current circumstances," a male driver of a Japanese food service provider said.
A female deliverer with another food service firm, however, said, "My job performance is reviewed by users, so if I am judged to dissatisfy them and my ratings go down, I might lose work opportunities."
Following the spread across Japan of the new virus, first detected late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, many delivery service companies have started to take steps to protect their drivers and customers from being infected.
Especially, as more people are set to use food delivery services ahead with the government calling on employees to work from home and schools to close for the time being, the risk of infection among drivers and customers is expected to increase, analysts warn.
Since last month, Demae-can Co., one of Japan's major food delivery operators, has required its drivers to wash their hands, gargle and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, while recommending they also wear face masks.
"We are making every effort to reduce the risk of infection to our customers and continuously offer safe services," Kumi Fujimoto, a Demae-can spokeswoman, told Kyodo News, adding the firm's drivers often deliver food products to two houses per hour.
"At a time like this, the most important thing is to curb viral infections, instead of caring about how our customers feel that a delivery person is wearing a mask," she said.
(Supplied photo shows a delivery worker in protective wear in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 5, 2020.)
Masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizers have sold out at pharmacies and convenience stores all over Japan in more than a month, as the supply of face masks has fallen far short of soaring demand amid growing fears of catching the new coronavirus.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to ensure 600 million masks are available every month, offering subsidies to manufacturers to expand production capacity, but Fujimoto said it remains "very difficult obtain them."
"Once we receive the necessary number of face masks, we will demand all our drivers should wear them," she added.
In an attempt not to contract the new coronavirus, food product deliverers in the Chinese capital have worn masks and gloves since earlier this year, while some of them have tried to stay at least 2 meters apart from a receiver.
Such measures have contributed to preventing the outbreak of the new virus to a certain extent, given that the total number of patients sickened with it in Beijing only climbed to around 400 from about 150 for a month from early February, a medical expert said.
But a driver of Uber Eats, operated by the Japanese arm of U.S. ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc., said, "I cannot use a face mask when I work, though I want to do so to decrease the possibility of infection with the new coronavirus."
Deliverers using bicycles and motorcycles are directed by the firm to pick up food and beverages at restaurants via the Uber Eats application. Their work behavior has been graded by food service retailers and customers as "good" or "bad."
A member of the Uber Eats Union said that some delivery drivers are worried that wearing a face mask may give users the impression their deliverers might be suffering from a cold or other viruses, leading to a "bad" evaluation.
According to a survey conducted early last month by AirTrip Corp., a Japanese online travel agency, nearly 30 percent of the 1,322 people aged from 20s to 70s answered they have been prohibited from wearing masks when they serve customers.
The Uber Eats driver, who delivers products to up to 40 houses a day, said, "I was also told by a user that if I think I would be infected from a customer, I must not work."
"If we get many bad reviews, we would not be chosen as a deliverer by Uber, possibly pushing down our revenues. It is hard to decide whether to wear a face mask even now," the driver added.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, says, "Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water," adding, "There is no evidence that they protect people."
The new virus, which causes the disease officially known as COVID-19, has reportedly infected more than 100,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide so far.