• staff report, Kyodo

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Amid a recent rapid rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide, including a daily record of 1,634 on Thursday, the government decided at a panel meeting the same day to maintain its current cap on the number of spectators permitted at large events at 50% of venue capacity until the end of February.

The government had originally imposed the restriction on spectator numbers until the end of this month, but has decided to keep the cap for another three months.

“We are on high alert,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the government’s COVID-19 response, told the panel. “We must prevent an explosive expansion of the infection,” he said.

By Thursday evening, the nationwide tally hit a record high 1,634 new cases, surpassing the 1,605 reported on Aug. 7, according to NHK.

Tokyo reported 393 coronavirus cases Thursday, marking over 300 cases for the second day in a row as case numbers also surged in Hokkaido and other parts of the nation.

Thursday’s new cases in Tokyo were based on the outcome of 7,056 tests. The number of severely ill patients was 39, up by one from Wednesday.

In Hokkaido, a record 236 cases were confirmed Thursday, according to prefectural officials, while Osaka Prefecture reported 231 cases.

Nishimura suggested falling temperatures and low humidity could exacerbate the outbreak as people head indoors into poorly ventilated and close-quarter situations.

“If the spread of infection continues we will have to take stronger measures,” he said.

The government has sought to restart economic activity while keeping the virus under control, rolling out the Go To Travel subsidy program for domestic tourism to help the industry weather the pandemic.

In September, the limit on attendance at large events was raised from 5,000 to 10,000 while keeping in place a cap at 50% of venue capacity. Tests have also been conducted at baseball stadiums in Tokyo and Yokohama using state-of-the-art cameras to study the effect of the three Cs — closed spaces, crowded and close-contact settings.

Attendees at the panel meeting also discussed risks associated with people making visits to Shinto shrines during New Year holidays, as well as existing restrictions on movie theaters serving food.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has vowed to keep the virus under control and hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics next year.

The government is planning to ease travel restrictions for athletes and staff participating in the Summer Games and is considering whether to do the same for spectators.

On Wednesday, Japan reported a near-record 1,547 cases nationwide, the highest level since early August, amid signs of what some health experts say is a “third wave” of infections as cooler temperatures arrive and people spend more time indoors without adequate ventilation.

The nationwide tally, compiled by Kyodo News and based on official information, inched closer to the single-day record of 1,596 logged on Aug. 7, as areas with big urban populations saw increases in numbers of new cases.

Osaka, Hyogo and Saitama prefectures all reported record single-day increases since the outbreak of the virus on Wednesday.

“This can be regarded as a third wave (of the COVID-19 virus),” Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association, told a news conference.

Tokyo has been seeing an uptick in infections since the beginning of November, with the average daily number of new cases in the capital compared to the previous seven days exceeding 250. The rate of increase is equivalent to that seen late in August, the month in which the spread of the COVID-19 virus peaked in Japan.

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