Travelers from Sapporo and Osaka should refrain from using the government’s ongoing travel promotion campaign, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday evening, a week after announcing that discounts on inbound travel to the two cities would be suspended for three weeks amid a nationwide surge of the novel coronavirus that began in late October.

As new infections continue to soar throughout the country, officials are trying to buffer hard-hit areas with vulnerable health care systems by waiving subsidies to the tourism and food industries and calling on restaurants and bars to close early.

Beginning Saturday, karaoke bars and restaurants that serve alcohol have been urged to close by 10 p.m. for three weeks in Tokyo’s 23 wards. Eateries in parts of Sapporo and Osaka have also been asked to close early.

Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura said Thursday that restaurants serving alcohol in Nagoya’s nightlife district will be asked to close by 9 p.m. for three weeks beginning Sunday.

On Friday, Tokyo reported an unprecedented 570 cases of COVID-19, while Osaka Prefecture saw 383, the latter having tallied a record-breaking 12 deaths the previous day. Hokkaido Prefecture reported 252 cases on Friday and nine deaths, its highest number of fatalities in a single day.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister spearheading the country’s pandemic response, said on Wednesday that Japan may have no choice but to declare a state of emergency if the nationwide surge of cases isn’t subdued within three weeks.

“The next three weeks are critical,” he said, adding that a state of emergency will “enter the field of view” if the virus doesn’t begin to recede by mid-December.

Despite having no legal basis to do so, Hokkaido declared a state of emergency in late February, weeks before the central government declared an emergency in seven prefectures in early April. The order was extended nationwide 10 days later and, as a result, brought economic activity to a crawl until the declaration was lifted on May 25.

Osaka's Minami district on Thursday. Osaka Prefecture reported 383 new cases of the virus on Friday. | KYODO
Osaka’s Minami district on Thursday. Osaka Prefecture reported 383 new cases of the virus on Friday. | KYODO

The virus appeared to subside in the weeks that followed but new cases began to emerge a month later, leading to a subsequent wave that health ministry officials believe peaked in late July.

Once again the spread of the virus entered a lull only for new cases to begin cropping up in late October, escalating within weeks to a surge that continues to produce record-breaking figures in prefectures throughout the country.

Officials and experts say the circumstances in which cluster infections are occurring are growing increasingly diverse and thus difficult to trace.

As the end of the year draws to a close, there is concern that colder weather will drive people indoors where poor ventilation might help the virus spread more quickly.

Suga announced on Nov. 21 that Sapporo and Osaka would be temporarily removed as eligible destinations for Go To Travel, a government program meant to resuscitate the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel.

Suga’s announcements on Friday and the week prior were made at the urging of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee as well as the governors of Osaka and Hokkaido.

According to a four-tier system created by the subcommittee, travel restrictions are warranted in areas deemed to have reached Stage 3 based on several factors including the number of new cases reported each day as well as the capacity for local hospitals to take in more COVID-19 patients.

Sapporo, Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo’s 23 wards have already reached Stage 3, Shigeru Omi, subcommittee chair, said Wednesday during a news conference.

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