With less than a day having passed since a monthlong state of emergency took effect across parts of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, already a growing number of other prefectures have asked for the order be expanded or extended to reflect the true severity of the nationwide spread of COVID-19.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday morning the central government would communicate with prefectural governors to determine whether expanding the declaration beyond the capital region was necessary.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura announced Friday that, along with his counterparts in Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, a joint request to include the three municipalities in the emergency declaration would be submitted to the central government Saturday or soon after. Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto reported 655, 297 and 147 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, respectively, as the nationwide total surged past 7,800, according to NHK.
Aichi Prefecture could follow suit, after Gov. Hideaki Omura said Thursday that local officials would closely monitor the situation over the three-day weekend with the possibility of an emergency declaration in mind.
“Regarding the severity of the situation and the state of local healthcare systems, we are all aligned and the central government will communicate closely with governors in putting forward further countermeasures,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the country’s coronavirus response, during a news conference Friday evening following a meeting of the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee.
Nishimura said he had spoken with the governors of Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures Friday evening.
Nishimura said that during the subcommittee meeting, a productive discussion was had regarding possible revisions to the country’s virus laws, namely the inclusion of eateries to the list of businesses eligible for tighter restrictions among a string of changes that might modernize laws originally enacted to fight the influenza virus years before COVID-19 emerged in January of last year.
The abrupt increase in new cases in Tokyo is “abnormal,” said Hitoshi Oshitani from the Tohoku University School of Medicine on Friday. “It’s difficult to comprehend.”
“Tokyo went from new cases hovering around 1,000 to blowing past 2,000 in less than 10 days,” Oshitani said, adding that reports in late December of a politician losing his life to COVID-19 and a growing number of virus patients dying at home may have led younger people to become more concerned and get themselves tested.
Nine days after then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared Japan’s first COVID-19 state of emergency across nine prefectures in April last year, that order was expanded nationwide.
The state of emergency declared by Suga on Thursday took effect Friday across Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama.
In each of the four municipalities, governors have asked eateries to limit operations to between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. and to close by 8 p.m., and have urged residents to stay indoors after 8 p.m., until the declaration is lifted.
The order is set to expire on Feb. 7 provided the situation improves. Whether that has happened will be determined using benchmarks that include hospital occupancy, the proportion of tests returning positive results and a decline in the numbers of new cases reported each day. Nishimura said Thursday the order won’t be lifted unless new cases in Tokyo fall below 500 per day.
On Friday, the capital reported 2,392 new COVID-19 cases. The day before, it logged an unprecedented 2,447 new infections of the disease — a staggering increase from the previous high of 1,591 infections recorded just the previous day — and Japan saw more than 7,500 cases nationwide for the first time. Record-breaking daily new case counts were seen in all of the following prefectures: Kyoto, Osaka, Chiba, Kanagawa, Wakayama, Nagasaki, Shiga, Ibaraki, Aichi, Gunma, Hyogo, Ehime, Miyazaki, Kagawa and Saitama.
“Compared to the previous state of emergency, the situation is different now,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during a news conference Friday. “It’s crucial that the flow of people is reduced, and that won’t be possible without the cooperation of the capital’s residents.”
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced Thursday evening it would provide up to ¥1.86 million each to small and medium sized businesses that comply with requests to reduce operations from Friday to Feb. 7. Owing to the abruptness of Suga’s Thursday declaration, Koike said businesses that needed time to prepare and could begin closing early on Tuesday would still receive ¥1.62 million.
The capital called on residents to avoid nonessential outings past 8 p.m., and urged businesses to reduce the proportion of employees commuting by 70% by promoting remote work and staggered hours. There was also a call for event organizers to reduce attendee numbers after Tuesday to 50% of venue capacity or less than 5,000 people, whichever is lower.
Net cafes, often used by homeless people overnight, will be excluded from closure requests. The metropolitan government has enlisted again the help of business hotels — as it did during the first state of emergency, and in the months that followed — to take in those who have lost their homes during the pandemic.
While schools will not be asked to close during the state of emergency, those in the capital have been asked to halt extracurricular activities thought to pose infection risks for students, to cancel or postpone all school events and to stagger attendance with students using technology to join classes remotely where possible.
Movie theaters, concert venues, department stores and amusement parks have been urged to close by 8 p.m.
While virus countermeasures are strictly voluntary, the metropolitan government has said it will publicize the names of food establishments that refuse to comply with business closure requests.
The extent to which people and businesses will comply with the voluntary restrictions stipulated under the state of emergency remains a major concern.
The Suga administration is working with the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, which together form the ruling bloc in the Diet, to introduce revisions to the country’s Special Measures Act that will enable prefectural governors to fine businesses that fail to comply with closure requests.
While the central government is rushing to give regional leaders sharper teeth in the uphill fight against COVID-19, some experts have voiced concern that a monthlong state of emergency targeting dining establishments in the capital region still lacks the scope and duration needed to contain the spreading virus.
While the origins of most of the 2,447 cases reported in Tokyo on Thursday were either not yet traced or untraceable, more than half of the 802 that had been traced were linked to infections that occurred within homes, apartments and other residences.
Only 85 of the 802 traced cases were connected to individuals who had recently dined in public, while 62 occurred in the workplace.
Shigeru Omi, president of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization and chair of the central government’s novel coronavirus subcommittee, said during a news conference Tuesday that declaring a state of emergency for only one month won’t subdue the virus to the extent authorities hope.
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