Osaka – As Japan spent its first weekend under a national state of emergency amid the COVID-19 outbreak, prefectural governors agreed on the need to limit unnecessary, nonessential travel between prefectures, to avoid large crowds, and to practice social distancing. But the issue of business closures and financial aid remains contentious.
While some have called on local businesses to close or reduce their hours of operation immediately and announced financial assistance measures, other governors say they are still discussing the idea of asking merchants to close.
Under its state of emergency declaration, the central government last week empowered prefectural governors to request that businesses close.
But the possibility of closures has prompted concerns — especially in prefectures with relatively few infections — that without financial guarantees from the central government, the impact could devastate local economies.
In Kyoto Prefecture, Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki called on bars, nightclubs, sports gyms, theaters, and karaoke establishments to close from midnight Saturday until May 6, when the state of emergency is currently due to expire.
“We plan to establish a prefectural fund to provide small and medium-sized firms in Kyoto with a onetime payment of ¥200,000, while the smallest individually owned businesses will receive ¥100,000 each,” he said Friday.
In neighboring Shiga Prefecture, where the main city of Otsu is just 10 minutes from Kyoto and 40 minutes from Osaka by train, Gov. Taizo Mikazuki asked residents to adhere to what he called the “one-fifth rule.” This means slashing commutes — especially to Kyoto and Osaka — from five times a week to once a week, while also reducing 50-minute face-to-face meetings to 10 minutes and cutting shopping visits to once a week.
Unlike Kyoto, however, which has a greater population and a larger tax base, Shiga did not ask businesses to close. Although such a move is currently being discussed, Mikazuki is worried that the state of emergency will be extended beyond May 6. He has indicated that he considers asking businesses to close should be contingent upon assurances from Tokyo of assistance, financial and otherwise.
“We’re not thinking about our own funds (to help local businesses), but we haven’t ruled it out as a possibility, either,” the governor said.
Another potential obstacle to reining in infections has been a reported rise in people traveling to other prefectures for services that have been shuttered in their home areas.
After Osaka Prefecture became one of just seven areas covered by the first state of emergency on April 7, leaving entertainment facilities closed, residents in neighboring Wakayama Prefecture reported a surge in cars with Osaka license plates parked in front of pachinko parlors.
Late last week, the city of Wakayama announced it was planning to conduct a survey over the weekend on those from outside the prefecture who had visited pachinko parlors there. The Osaka and Wakayama governors also issued calls for Osaka residents not to visit Wakayama, where the pachinko slots remain open.
“We call on those from outside of Wakayama Prefecture to refrain from making unnecessary trips to our prefecture, including for sightseeing,” Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka said Friday.
With so many small businesses nationwide feeling the pinch, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has been calling for increased financial assistance from the central government. He has urged the National Governors’ Association to push the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to create a system that provides financial relief to cover rent for firms that have been asked to close amid the outbreak.
Still, some prefectures that have largely avoided the surge in cases seen in urban centers have ruled out asking businesses to close.
In Tottori Prefecture, with just three confirmed infections as of Sunday afternoon, Gov. Shinji Hirai has said that, at present, there was no sense of unease over the virus’s spread.
“At this time, I’m not going to request that businesses shut down,” Hirai said Friday.
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