• Kyodo

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Japan lifted its final restrictions on interprefecture travel on Friday, as the government said it believes the spread of the novel coronavirus has been kept in check.

Long-distance passengers started returning to railway stations and airports while a number of entertainment venues across the country reopened.

Although the government lifted the nationwide state of emergency in late May, people had been advised to avoid all nonessential travel to and from Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, as well as Hokkaido.

With travel restrictions already lifted elsewhere, Friday’s opening up of these prefectures paves the way for a recovery in domestic tourism as the government seeks to revitalize the struggling sector.

At Tokyo Station, many passengers lined up on shinkansen platforms that had been deserted in recent weeks.

“I appreciate that the travel advisories have been lifted,” said Takahiro Okamoto, a 33-year-old resident of Chiba, as he prepared to travel with his family to Osaka, where his wife is due to give birth.

“As (my wife) has been requested by her hospital to stay home for two weeks before admission, we still need to be careful,” he said.

Station workers using alcohol-based disinfectant could be seen wiping down sections of automated gates where passengers insert tickets or place smart cards.

“I hope passengers will be able to use (the station) with peace of mind as we carry out frequent disinfection,” said Yasuhiro Sato, a Central Japan Railway Co. employee.

Tokyo has the largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases among the country’s 47 prefectures, and close economic links with its neighboring districts, while Hokkaido was recently hit by a fresh wave of infections.

For all departing domestic and international flights, All Nippon Airways Co. has started splitting passengers into six groups and inviting those seated at the rear of the aircraft to board first. At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, ANA ground staff wearing face shields asked passengers to keep their distance from each other.

“I think airline companies have responded appropriately,” Teruo Anase, a 71-year-old from Hokkaido, said before boarding a flight to Sapporo.

Under the state of emergency, declared ahead of the Golden Week holidays between late April and early May, the government had asked people to refrain from crossing all prefectural borders.

It has tried to strike a balance between expanding economic activity and adopting stronger precautionary measures, while health experts have warned Japan could see a second wave of infections if people let their guard down.

The number of people now allowed at events such as concerts has been raised to 1,000, from 100 for indoor venues and from 200 for outdoor sites.

However, indoor venues are allowed to fill only half their capacity, while those outdoors have been asked to ensure sufficient distancing.

Professional sports have been allowed to resume — without spectators — with this year’s Nippon Professional Baseball season starting Friday, while business closure requests for establishments such as nightclubs have also been lifted.

Meanwhile, Tokyo lifted all restrictions on businesses on Friday amid signs that the coronavirus pandemic is waning in the Japanese capital, although concerns remain over a potential second wave of infections.

The metropolitan government withdrew its temporary closure request on live music venues, nightclubs and similar entertainment establishments where people come into close contact in enclosed spaces, exiting the last phase of its three-step restriction easing process.

Most other businesses had already begun operating under previous steps.

Eateries were allowed to return to business as normal with the lifting of the government request that they shorten opening hours.

The loosening of restrictions comes despite the capital still recording double-digit daily new infections, with more than 90 people in total returning positive coronavirus tests from Monday to Wednesday.

On Monday alone, Tokyo logged 48 new coronavirus infections, marking the largest daily tally since May 5. It also reported 41 new cases on Thursday.

Infections spread in Tokyo from late March, with the daily new case total eclipsing 200 in mid-April. While the figures fell in May, there was a spike after the state of emergency was lifted on May 25.

Earlier in the week, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the recent increases in the daily total reflected efforts to track infection routes and the better cooperation from the nightlife industry in testing. She maintained the increase does not indicate worsening levels of community transmission.

Tokyo, with a population of about 14 million, laid out a three-step plan to ease virus restrictions by setting numerical infection milestones, with museums and schools reopened in the first phase, following the lifting in late May of a state of emergency.

In the second phase of easing from June 1, sports facilities and theaters reopened, and in the third phase from June 12, pachinko parlors and karaoke venues were permitted to resume operating.

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