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Authorities will soon have a new weapon at their disposal in the fight against COVID-19: fines for those who flout guidelines.

The Diet on Wednesday passed two bills that allow authorities to levy financial punishments on individuals and businesses that violate the government's antivirus measures.

Once they go into force, it will be possible to levy financial penalties on businesses that refuse local government orders to shorten their hours of operation under a state of emergency and individuals who refuse to be hospitalized or tested for the novel coronavirus.

In addition, a revised quarantine law was passed that allows authorities to demand those entering Japan isolate themselves for 14 days at home. Those who refuse will be ordered to quarantine at special facilities. The new measures passed the Diet a day after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a state of emergency would be extended until March 7 for 10 prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka.

What are the main points of the new legislation?

In areas under a state of emergency, businesses refusing to cooperate with orders to shorten their hours or shut down for a designated period face a fine of ¥300,000. Even if a state of emergency hasn't been declared, the legislation also allows local authorities to inspect businesses during a Stage 3 alert, one level away from the maximum, to ensure they shorten their hours. Those that refuse to do so would face a ¥200,000 fine.

A TV shows Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing an extension of the coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and other regions by one month to March 7. | KYODO
A TV shows Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing an extension of the coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and other regions by one month to March 7. | KYODO

In addition, under the new revisions to the Infectious Disease Law, those who are infected but refuse orders to be hospitalized can be fined up to ¥500,000. Furthermore, infected patients who refuse to cooperate with public officials in tracking their infection route could face a fine of up to ¥300,000.

To go along with the penalties, the bills also include stronger language around financial support for businesses that comply with orders to close or scale back their operations.

Why were the revisions deemed necessary?

Prior to the revisions, even under a state of emergency, demands on businesses to close early or shut down completely were essentially voluntary.

Business owners faced no fines or legal action for refusing to close. Nor were there any legal penalties for individuals who were diagnosed with the virus but refused orders to be hospitalized, or for patients who refused to help with contract tracing efforts by telling authorities where they had been. Failed efforts by the central government to contain outbreaks under the previous laws, and demands by prefectural governors seeking more legal authority to punish violators with penalties, led to the decision to add fines to encourage compliance.

National Governors’ Association members, in a meeting with economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura (upper left) demand an early revision of the special measures law, on Jan.12. | KYODO
National Governors’ Association members, in a meeting with economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura (upper left) demand an early revision of the special measures law, on Jan.12. | KYODO

What has been the reaction to the bills?

The National Governors’ Association, the official association of Japan's 47 prefectural leaders, had long pushed for legal penalties against local businesses and individuals that violate orders to shut down or cooperate with local health authorities. The association has officially welcomed passage of the bills, saying they incorporated previous recommendations of the association, though questions remain about how effective they will be in practice.

Legal experts, however, as well as the Japanese Communist Party, have expressed concerns that the bills will infringe upon privacy rights while other experts have wondered just how effective, in practice, levying fines against offending businesses and individuals will be in combating the virus.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, in a Jan. 22 statement, warned that the bill would lead to social discrimination and damage the honor and privacy of individuals as well as the freedom of businesses. Strengthening local medical services and providing fair economic support for businesses, the association said, was essential but the simple introduction of penalties for violators was not.

Last month, members of a health ministry committee on infections, which the government had asked to provide advice on the bills, raised concerns that the strengthened law would increase the burdens on already-strained local health clinics. The committee noted that the clinics would be the ones who have to determine whether infected individuals were cooperating with hospitalization orders or requests to trace the route of their infection.

There were calls among committee members to continue discussions within the government rather than rush to pass the bills. But Suga said there was a general agreement among experts on the content of the bills, including the fines, so there was no problem with passing them without further discussions or revision.

The new laws will go into effect on Feb. 13.

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