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Osaka Prefecture’s decision Tuesday to ask groups of five or more people to refrain from visiting restaurants, bars and entertainment establishments has been met with skepticism over whether it will lead to a reduction in COVID-19 cases.

The new policy goes into effect beginning Saturday and is scheduled to end Aug. 20, just after the end of the annual Obon holiday season. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura made the decision after consulting with a local committee of health experts.

“The central government has asked that large groups of people avoid dining out. But a lot of younger people in particular are asking ‘Well, what do you mean by large groups?’” Yoshimura explained. “In order to convey a clear message to younger people, we figured the time had come to ask them to refrain from going out in groups of a specific number of people.”

Osaka’s move comes as novel coronavirus infections spread beyond nightlife businesses, such as host clubs and hostess bars, which had been regarded as hot spots.

An increasing number of infections have been confirmed nationwide in areas where restaurants and izakaya bars are concentrated, and several cases have been linked to drinking parties.

Yoshimura admits that limiting the request to groups of five or more was a political decision with no clear scientific rationale. Initial reaction to the idea on social media among Osaka residents seemed to be a mixture of confusion about how he came up with the number and criticism that it made no sense. But Yoshimura defended the request as necessary, in a move that, he hoped, would make it more persuasive for Osaka residents.

“I think the role of politics is to create a clear standard that people will accept,” he said.

The request is purely voluntary and there will be exceptions. If a family of five or more members living under the same roof wish to make a reservation, they’ll be allowed. The main purpose is to limit large groups in the types of establishments where there have been cluster infections.

In a teleconference Tuesday, Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of responding to the novel coronavirus, called on mayors of six major cities — Yokohama, Sapporo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Kobe and Fukuoka — to disclose the names of nightlife establishments if infections are confirmed there as a result of insufficient antivirus measures.

Nishimura said eating and drinking establishments should comply with guidelines set by the nightlife industry to help block the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus.

If customers or staff members of establishments that failed to follow the guidelines are confirmed to be infected, the businesses should be named so that customers who visited them can know about the infections, he said.

With the rise in the number of infections in recent days, especially among younger people, the governments of Osaka, Tokyo and other local leaders are once again facing the question of whether to ask public facilities and businesses, or certain kinds of businesses, to shut down.

Some large cities like Tokyo and Osaka have their own metrics, separate from those set by the central government, for determining how they will handle such a decision.

But asking local businesses in Tokyo, Osaka, or elsewhere to shut down once again voluntarily would lead to further local economic damage. It would also create demands on local leaders for financial compensation. Cash-strapped localities are increasingly unable to meet such demands, and many want central government guarantees of national funding before they request another shutdown.

Under Yoshimura’s “Osaka Model”, the situation is currently at Yellow Stage 1, meaning people should be on alert. Only 6.9 percent of the prefecture’s hospital beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients were occupied as of Tuesday, while 24.1 percent of beds for those who are lightly or moderately ill were filled.

Under the model, if 35 percent of hospital beds for seriously ill patients or about half of the beds for patients with light or moderate symptoms become occupied, the prefecture enters Yellow Stage 2 and will ask businesses that have not taken sufficient measures to close.

To deal with seriously ill COVID-19 patients, Yoshimura also announced that a temporary facility would be built to accommodate such cases. It will have beds for 30 patients and operate for two years, he said, with construction expected to be completed by November.

Information from Kyodo added

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