Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday that the government will lift a state of emergency in six prefectures, imposed over the spread of COVID-19, ahead of its scheduled end on March 7, as numbers of new infections and the hospital bed occupancy rate had been reduced sufficiently.

With the decision to cancel the declaration in the prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Aichi, Gifu and Fukuoka starting March 1, the focus in those areas will shift to suppressing any resurgence of the virus. Although restaurants in the affected regions will no longer be required to shorten business hours and close at 8 p.m., or shut completely, governors in those regions will likely ask them to close their doors by 9 p.m. for some time in exchange for financial compensation of up to ¥40,000 per day.

The emergency declaration will be maintained through the scheduled end date for Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, as the decline in new cases has slowed.

The news was met with a mixed reception. Public health experts and governors in the capital region remain on edge over the risk of a rebound in cases, given the lifting of the declaration in other areas and the likelihood that the public may be tempted to go outside or dine out even in areas where the declaration remains as temperatures rise toward spring.

Ahead of a meeting of a government advisory panel on the pandemic, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s virus response, warned that the early termination of the emergency declaration would not mean all precautionary measures are being lifted.

“There could be waves of the pandemic in the future, so it’s important to thoroughly implement measures to prevent that from happening,” Nishimura said.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido and Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki jointly asked Nishimura on Tuesday to end the declaration early in their region, desperate to minimize economic damage as much as possible. All three prefectures have met their own criteria for asking the central government to remove them from the state of emergency. On Thursday, 82 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Osaka, 36 in Hyogo and seven in Kyoto.

Few people can be seen at the entrance to the usually crowded Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, a popular tourist attraction, in July 2020 amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. | REUTERS
Few people can be seen at the entrance to the usually crowded Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, a popular tourist attraction, in July 2020 amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. | REUTERS

Similarly, the situation has improved in both Aichi and Gifu prefectures, with 41 new cases reported in the former and eight in the latter on Thursday. As for hospitals, 29.9% of beds for COVID-19 patients in Aichi were occupied and 20.7% in Gifu, showing drops of 13.4 percentage points and 13.2 percentage points, respectively, from two weeks ago.

The administration had been torn about the treatment of Fukuoka until the last minute, but is set to lift measures there after Fukuoka Deputy Gov. Seitaro Hattori reached out to the central government asking it to do so. The administration made the call after Friday’s Cabinet meeting, one senior official said.

The rate of hospital bed use in Fukuoka for novel coronavirus patients had decreased by Wednesday to 45.2%, from 50.8% on Monday, with 22 new beds added. Two weeks earlier, on Feb. 10, the rate was 62.8%.

In contrast, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba have forgone the opportunity to end the measure early in order to ensure cases continue to decrease and the burden on hospitals is further alleviated. The declaration will stay in place for those four prefectures at least through March 7, and requests for restaurants to close by 8 p.m. will be kept in place.

Tokyo logged 270 new cases Friday, down from 353 a week earlier. But over 1,800 people are still hospitalized and 30 deaths attributed to the coronavirus were reported in the nation’s capital on Friday, the second-highest death toll in a single day. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike spoke Friday of her caution over the possibility of COVID-19 infections bouncing back to high levels.

That caution was echoed Friday morning by Shigeru Omi, head of the government's advisory panel on the virus. “We should hold an advisory panel meeting one more time for a final debate,” he said, “as we need to have a discussion based on the latest indices available on the infection situation and the level of stringency for hospitals.”

Yasutoshi Nishimura (right), the minster leading the government's pandemic response, attends an advisory panel with Shigeru Omi (center), the panel's head, and health minister Norihisa Tamura (left) in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura (right), the minster leading the government’s pandemic response, attends an advisory panel with Shigeru Omi (center), the panel’s head, and health minister Norihisa Tamura (left) in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

Health experts are apprehensive about the risk that ending the state of emergency early would reduce vigilance against the virus and encourage people to go outside even in the areas where the measure has not been lifted.

Nishimura struck a similar chord at the advisory panel meeting, noting that March, April and May tend to be a period when the movement of people increases and that the pandemic raged in March and April last year as well. He also expressed concern about new variants that are said to be more transmissible.

Following the meeting, health minister Norihisa Tamura revealed that many public health experts on the panel were uneasy about whether hospitals would be able to cope with a potential spike in new cases if the state of emergency was scrapped.

Speaking to the press Friday night, Suga defended the decision of some prefectures to move the end date forward, noting that the numerical standards to end the state of emergency have been met and each prefecture is gradually dialing back restrictions — instead of dropping them altogether.

Asked whether the government would possibly extend the state of emergency in Tokyo and adjacent prefectures, Suga stressed, “It’s crucial to put preventive measures in place thoroughly now so that (the state of emergency) can be lifted nationwide on March 7 as the government considers various scenarios.”

The government’s subcommittee on COVID-19 measures announced guidance Thursday evening regarding dining at restaurants. It advises limiting the number of people eating out in groups to four or below if they are not family members who live together, and choosing restaurants that are adequately spaced, not crowded and that use appropriately sized acrylic dividers.

The subcommittee members also urged the public to refrain from taking part in graduation trips and parties, welcome and farewell parties and cherry blossom viewing parties involving eating and drinking.

Meanwhile, tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba told reporters that the central government was “not at the point” of discussing a resumption of the Go To Travel subsidy program after the state of emergency is nullified. The program has been suspended nationwide since December.

The current state of emergency over the virus is the second to be imposed in Japan, after the government declared nationwide controls last year during the first wave of the virus that were later lifted.

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