National | ANALYSIS

Tokyo faces another critical weekend as daily infection rate hits record high

by Ryusei Takahashi

staff writer

Once again the capital stands at a critical juncture this weekend, with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike having urged residents to stay inside and avoid all nonessential travel following an unprecedented surge of the novel coronavirus.

Almost four months have passed since the first time she made such a request. However, not only has the situation intensified dramatically, the countermeasures policymakers had at their disposal then might no longer be an option.

While the capital once again faces a crucial moment in its fight against the coronavirus, this time it does so on very different terms.

In the last weekend of March, the city had reported more than 40 cases for three days in a row. The figure, then unprecedented, drove Koike to threaten a citywide lockdown — despite questionable legal standing — and the central government to declare a state of emergency in seven prefectures including Tokyo less than two weeks later.

After nine days, the state of emergency was extended to the rest of the country. As a result, for less than two months, a voluntary moratorium was imposed on urban traffic and businesses nationwide.

In contrast, daily cases shattered previous records nationwide and in the capital this week on Thursday when Japan logged 981 new cases, of which 366 occurred in Tokyo.

“It’s a concerning number,” Koike told reporters Thursday. “We should take it as a warning that stronger public cooperation is necessary to stop the virus from spreading further.”

The capital’s previous record was set on July 17, when it reported 292 cases.

On Friday, Tokyo recorded an additional 260 cases of COVID-19. Osaka reported 149 cases, while Aichi saw 63, recording over 50 for the fourth consecutive day.

The same day, the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa Prefecture reported an additional 41 infections, bringing the total infections among the military there to 201 since the July 4 weekend.

The latest cases included 27 at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in the city of Ginowan, and 14 at Camp Hansen, in the town of Kin.

Imposing a lockdown on a city in Japan — at least one comparable to what was seen in northern Italy or Spain in the early stages of the pandemic — is practically impossible, because municipal leaders are unable to punish those who disobey social distancing measures or business closure requests.

Political inertia and unavoidable economic losses make it unclear whether policymakers will declare another state of emergency.

Meanwhile, several municipalities have refined their countermeasures by taking a more selective approach in testing and in providing cash handouts to local businesses.

New infections with the virus sank to a lull after the declaration was lifted May 25 but regained momentum in late June, and the pace of daily reports has since hit fever pitch in urban centers across the country.

On March 26, young people in their 20s and 30s accounted for 12 of the 46 cases reported in the capital.

In comparison, new cases reported in Tokyo on Thursday were nearly eight times higher, and young people in their 20s and 30s accounted for 232 — or roughly 63 percent — of the 366 cases.

Compared with March 26, new cases reported Thursday nationwide had risen tenfold.

Officials said 49 of the new cases, or about 13 percent, on Thursday were asymptomatic.

Positive polymerase chain reaction test results were collected from all 30 testing centers in the capital, barring those located on islands offshore to the southeast of Tokyo, which the metropolitan government said had never happened before.

Officials said it could be a sign the virus has been spreading to new places in the capital.

The most recent outbreak in Tokyo began in late June. The city reported around 50 new cases a day leading up to early July, when the situation began to escalate.

A fluctuating but significant portion of new cases have been traced back to host and hostess bars, maid cafes and other nightlife destinations located in Kabukicho and Ikebukuro, districts that are located in the city’s Shinjuku and Toshima wards, respectively.

Koike advised older people and those with pre-existing health conditions to isolate themselves over the four-day weekend. The governor urged all residents to stay indoors and avoid all nonessential outings.

Staff writer Jesse Johnson contributed to this story.

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