File photo shows taxis moving towards a passenger pick-up point at Tokyo Station on April 28, 2019. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Japan's transport ministry on Wednesday allowed taxi drivers in Tokyo to refuse passengers who are not wearing face masks without a valid reason, amid persistent concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The approval of the provision, requested by 10 taxi companies in the capital, could also affect the norms of etiquette in other areas of the country.

Japan's road transportation law stipulates that taxi operators cannot deny passengers unless they are heavily intoxicated or violent to drivers, among other special circumstances.

Taxi operators set rules based on the law that have to be authorized by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

The Tokyo taxi companies had asked the ministry to allow them to change part of the rules as behavior such as drunk passengers speaking loudly without wearing masks would increase the risk of coronavirus infection for taxi drivers.

"The provision does not endorse an across-the-board refusal of people who are not wearing face masks," a transport ministry official said, adding that if their customers are maskless, taxi drivers should check whether they have health or other unavoidable reasons.

The ministry said the provision was approved to protect not only taxi drivers but also subsequent riders.

Since the outbreak of the virus, taxi companies in Japan have been taking precautionary measures such as frequent disinfection of vehicles. Drivers are required to wear face masks and undergo body temperature checks as well.

On Wednesday, Tokyo reported 122 additional virus cases, bringing the capital's cumulative total to 31,624, the highest by far among Japan's 47 prefectures.

The average daily number of new cases in Tokyo over the previous seven days has remained almost flat at below 200.

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