Local leaders on Friday reacted to the central government’s decision to lift the state of emergency for 39 of the 47 prefectures with both relief and concern that the return to outdoor activities, school and work raised the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Worries about cross-border infections if people in one of the eight remaining prefectures — Tokyo, Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto — decide to travel to an adjacent or nearby prefecture were particularly strong in the Kansai region. Despite those concerns, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo are going their own way.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura announced that, since the prefecture had met its own numerical targets for a phased lifting of the request, it would allow some businesses to begin reopening starting Saturday.

“This is not the goal, merely the starting point. We’ll gradually return to daily life while making all efforts to keep a lid on infections,” Yoshimura said at a news conference Thursday night.

Under the plan Yoshimura announced on May 5, which he called the "Osaka model," a phased reopening of businesses would begin if: 1) the infection rate for those tested over a seven-day period was under 7 percent; 2) if fewer than 10 people over a seven-day period are infected by an unknown route; and 3) if less than 60 percent of its hospital beds are occupied by seriously ill patients.

Osaka had met all of those conditions as of Friday. Therefore, from Saturday, Osaka will no longer ask big businesses, universities, museums, movie theaters and libraries to stay closed. Pachinko parlors under 1,000 sq. meters will be allowed to reopen, as will internet cafes. Restaurants that were previously asked to close at 8 p.m. will be able to stay open until 10 p.m.

Nightclubs, concert halls and sports gyms, however, have been asked to remain closed.

Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido made a similar announcement Friday, saying closure requests in the prefecture will be lifted for department stores, movie theaters, universities and museums from Saturday but will be made again if the average for daily infections reaches 10 or more in a seven-day period.

The Kyoto Prefectural Government also decided on Friday to partially lift its business closure request starting Saturday, along the lines of what Osaka and Hyogo are doing.

The central government’s guidelines for lifting the state of emergency included a prefectural infection rate of 0.5 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period. As of Thursday, Osaka's rate was 0.72 and neighboring Kyoto's was 0.62. Hyogo's rate was only 0.38, meaning it met the standard for lifting the emergency.

Central Kobe in Hyogo is only about 20 minutes from Osaka Station and linked extensively by roads and rail lines, creating worries about cross-border infections. This led to the decision to put Hyogo on the list of prefectures kept under the state of emergency.

That decision may also reflect concern in the government, as well as in some other parts of Kansai, that the “Osaka model” might backfire and lead to a second wave of infections.

According to the 2015 census, 26 percent of Nara residents, or nearly 194,000 people, commute to school or work in a neighboring prefecture, usually Osaka or Kyoto.

About 384,000 Hyogo residents, or 12.7 percent of the population, also cross borders for work and school, going mostly to Osaka. In Shiga, 96,000 people, or 11.4 percent of the population, work or study either in adjacent Kyoto or Osaka, about an hour away by train.

In Kyoto, nearly 160,000 people, or 11.3 percent of the population, commute to another prefecture. And even in Osaka, 283,000 people, or 6.4 percent, work or study in neighboring Hyogo, Kyoto, Nara, or Wakayama prefectures.

During the Golden Week holidays, cross-border infections became an issue when people from major cities flocked to prefectures where infection rates were lower and more businesses were open. Now that Yoshimura has announced Osaka will begin reopening, some adjacent prefectures are worried he’s rushing things.

“Yoshimura basically said we’d live with the risk of coronavirus. In that sense, he was quite brave. But there were a few things he didn’t include in the 'Osaka model,' such as what to do about people who are only mildly ill or showing no symptoms, and therefore aren’t using hospital beds," said Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka on a local television program Thursday. "And what about PCR tests for those who have been in close contact with those who have tested positive?” he added.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.