• Kyodo, Reuters

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday asked organizers to carefully examine the need to hold large sports and entertainment events after a government panel of medical experts warned of a potential “explosive” increase in domestic infections of COVID-19.

Speaking at a meeting of a government task force on Japan’s latest coronavirus response, Abe also instructed the education ministry to draw up guidelines for the possible reopening of schools after spring break, which typically ends in early April.

Abe has already asked that big events be canceled, postponed, or scaled down to reduce group transmission risks and for all schools to shut until the end of spring break. The school year typically starts in April.

On Thursday an expert panel guiding the nation’s coronavirus response concluded that Japan has so far avoided an exponential surge in the number of patients like that seen in Italy.

But the panel also said Japan could see such explosive growth of infections in the near future, urging people to avoid staying in poorly ventilated environments where many people are in close proximity, or allowing such environments to develop.

The panel also recommended on Thursday that some schools reopen, though mass gatherings that could reignite the outbreak should still be avoided.

The infectious disease experts recommended at a meeting that areas of Japan with low numbers of coronavirus cases can consider resuming classes and sporting events, said Koji Wada, a member of the panel.

“There are some areas where almost all the patients have been identified in the past two weeks,” said Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo.

“So in those areas, it’s OK to reopen schools, even now.”

Japan has had 923 domestically transmitted cases and 32 deaths, according to the latest tally from NHK. That does not include more than 700 cases and seven deaths from a cruise ship moored in Yokohama last month.

Among the 47 prefectures, 22 have had fewer than five cases, according to health ministry data.

In a request that shocked the country, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration asked schools to close in March to stem the outbreak.

As Japan heads into a three-day weekend, typically marked by cherry blossom-viewing parties, the panel will recommend that people refrain from getting together in big groups, Wada said.

“We are going to continue that request,” he said.

The eyes of the world are on Japan to see if it will step back from its determination to press ahead with the Summer Olympics.

Organizers have repeatedly said the July 24 to Aug. 9 games will go on as scheduled, but with the rapid spread of the coronavirus bringing the sports world to a virtual standstill, fears are growing the Olympics may be canceled or postponed.

The governor of Hokkaido, the prefecture with the highest number of infections, said his administration was scaling back its response to the outbreak, ending the emergency on Thursday to move to a new phase.

“We will end the emergency declaration as scheduled on March 19 and from the 20th move to a new stage to overcome the crisis,” Gov. Naomichi Suzuki told reporters.

Hokkaido had seen 154 infections as of Wednesday.

In Nagoya, capital of hard-hit Aichi Prefecture, more elderly day care centers with thousands of users will reopen from Saturday after a two-week shutdown. The city had requested the facilities close after a cluster of contagion cases had been linked to an elder care center.

Meanwhile, the government has asked citizens to refrain from unnecessary travel between the Hyogo and Osaka prefectures in western Japan over the three-day weekend from Friday, NHK reported, quoting the Osaka governor. Osaka had seen 117 cases and Hyogo 92 as of Thursday morning, according to NHK’s tally.

The virus has infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,700 globally with the most serious spread now taking place in Europe as China, where the virus originated late last year, has been succeeding in bringing its epidemic under control.

The United States and Europe have enacted travel bans and put major cities on lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.

Japan has closed schools and canceled many sporting events, but has refrained from putting firm restrictions on travel, businesses and restaurants.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would listen to what the expert panel says before deciding what to do about school and public events

With the outbreak taking a heavy toll on the economy, the government is working on a massive stimulus package, likely to be compiled in April.

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