With the number of COVID-19 cases once again rising, the debate among government officials, the media and health experts over how, or whether, to once again ask businesses to close down is gaining momentum, though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the situation isn’t dire enough to declare another state of emergency.

But since the middle of this month, calls have been growing among local leaders for the central government to get tougher. Several are calling for governors to be given the authority to shut down, fine and even suspend the licenses of businesses — especially bars, nightclubs, karaoke lounges and other entertainment establishments that ignore official requests to close.

The efforts are being led by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who has the backing of several other governors who want more power to carry out health inspections on individual entertainment businesses and the authority to punish them legally if they refuse to cooperate. But national leaders have expressed caution, noting the proposal would require much debate.

On July 14, Yoshimura presented a proposal to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make it legally obligatory for businesses to cooperate with local governments in stopping the novel coronavirus behind the disease.

“There are some who would consider legal measures to be heavy-handed. But looking at it from the view of protecting people’s lives, I think that a legal framework when persuasion doesn’t work is needed,” Yoshimura told reporters after the meeting.

“In Osaka and Tokyo, infections are spreading among younger people in nightlife districts, and there are places that are not taking protection measures. Legal measures requiring designated areas to take responsibility to prevent infections are needed. If those measures are not followed, such establishments should face the possibility of losing their operating licenses,” Yoshimura said.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura attends a meeting of the prefectural government's coronavirus task force on July 3 in the city of Osaka. | KYODO
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura attends a meeting of the prefectural government’s coronavirus task force on July 3 in the city of Osaka. | KYODO

Abe replied that he was aware of the problem, Yoshimura said. But the prime minister offered no commitments to pursue new legislation.

Yoshimura repeated his message to Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the national COVID 19 response, and health minister Katsunobu Kato the following day. Nishimura, however, appeared cautious, noting that incorporating Yoshimura’s idea would require major legal revisions.

But support for legislation to give governors more legal authority over uncooperative nightlife businesses is growing among local leaders.

On July 19, the governors of Tokushima, Tottori, Kyoto and Kanagawa, who head a National Governors’ Association group in charge of coronavirus issues, called on the central government to strengthen the ability of local governments to check individual establishments and levy fines and legal measures if necessary, as well as to financially assist businesses that cooperate in closing down.

Yoshimura, meanwhile, continues to build his case for a legal revision in the national media. In a development that could have national political implications, he also spoke about the issue of increasing local control with opposition party leaders.

While in Tokyo, Yoshimura met with senior officials from Nippon Ishin no Kai, the Osaka-based conservative party in which Yoshimura is a senior leader, and veteran Democratic Party for the People lawmaker Seiji Maehara.

The two parties have begun sounding each other out about some sort of cooperation in the Diet and, possibly, during a general election. Maehara and others in the DPP are more conservative than their fellow members and this has thwarted previous efforts to merge with the more moderate to liberal Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

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