The Tokyo Metropolitan Government issued business closure orders — as opposed to closure requests — on Thursday to more than two dozen food establishments that failed or refused to comply with COVID-19 countermeasures, making Gov. Yuriko Koike the first to do so since a legal amendment to the country’s virus laws in February made it possible for noncompliant businesses to incur fines.

The move comes at a critical juncture in Japan, just days before the state of emergency in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is lifted Monday and the legal authority given to local leaders to fine noncompliant businesses is rescinded.

Regardless of the political dynamics at play, experts say the juxtaposition of the capital’s move and the central government’s intention to reopen the last remaining areas under the emergency will surely confuse the public.

The decision was likely meant to send a message to noncompliant businesses and test how effective the measure would be, but the contradictory messaging will disorient the country at a crucial moment, said Motohiro Sato, a professor at the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Economics.

“The decision seems to represent a split between the capital and the central government, both in intent and in their recognition of the situation,” he said. “It’s not just local businesses that will be made uncertain by the mixed messages, but also hospitals, medical facilities and all manner of institutions both private and public.”

The city announced Friday it had issue closure orders to five additional establishments.

Metropolitan government officials said Thursday that additional orders will be issued to more establishments before measures around the state of emergency come to an end Monday, and those who don’t obey between now and then will be referred next week to the Tokyo District Court, which will decide whether a fine is necessary or justified.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike attends a meeting on coronavirus measures at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike attends a meeting on coronavirus measures at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Twenty-six of the 27 establishments that received a closure order Thursday are operated by Global Dining, a large food conglomerate based in the capital’s Minato Ward that runs a number of restaurants in and around the capital.

The firm announced Thursday evening it would comply with the city’s order.

“What we don’t want is for people to see others going out and thinking they can or should do the same,” Koike said Friday during a news conference.

In contrast, Kanagawa Prefecture said Thursday it will not issue closure orders to noncompliant businesses, mainly due to concerns that doing so just before the emergency is lifted would have little effect.

Dining establishments have been asked to close by 8 p.m. throughout the duration of the state of emergency in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading in restaurants, bars and eateries.

Legally, prefectural governments can issue three different warnings of increasing severity to businesses that don’t comply with closure requests while a state of emergency is in place. The first is a warning, the second is a warning paired with the possibility that the name of the noncompliant firm will be released publicly if it still fails to obey, and the third is an order.

Following the revision of the country’s virus law in February, prefectural governors can refer businesses that disobey closure orders to their respective district courts, which will decide whether to hand down a monetary fine of up to ¥300,000.

Since late February, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has issued first- and second-level warnings to 129 noncompliant businesses, including 16 on Thursday.

Streetside food vendors in Tokyo's Ueno district were bustling with customers on Jan. 9, despite the declaration of a state of emergency two days earlier. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Streetside food vendors in Tokyo’s Ueno district were bustling with customers on Jan. 9, despite the declaration of a state of emergency two days earlier. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

While several businesses have cited concerns that government stimulus isn’t enough to enable them to close early or temporarily and still pay staff, more than half of the businesses that received a warning have gone further in purposefully refusing to comply with the requests, in some cases going as far as to advertise publicly that they’re keeping their doors open after 8 p.m.

On March 11, in response to a repeated warning from the metropolitan government, Global Dining President Kozo Hasegawa set out the reasons his company would not comply with the closure request in a statement addressed to Koike. Those included his belief that getting infected or vaccinated is the only way to become immune to COVID-19, that young people aren’t as vulnerable as older people and should be allowed to act freely while taking certain precautions, and that the city’s request is just that, which implies that one can choose not to comply.

To issue closure orders just before the emergency is lifted was “symbolic,” said Takero Doi, an economics professor at Keio University.

“I believe it’s a message, on one end, to businesses and to the people that the virus is still spreading and strong countermeasures will continue to be taken,” he said. “On the other hand, it speaks to the concerns and frustrations of the silent majority, who have spent weeks under isolation during the state of emergency and will remain cautious after it’s lifted.”

To those who are complying with requests to reduce business hours or stay indoors, it would seem unfair that others can disobey with no consequences, said Yasushi Aoyama, former vice governor of Tokyo and a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance.

Since the central government declared a state of emergency in early January, the metropolitan government has dispatched hundreds of staff to the capital’s far reaches to confirm, in person, whether food establishments are taking virus precautions.

Compliant businesses were eligible for financial support, but noncompliant ones were subject to various warnings that didn’t carry any penalties, at least not until national lawmakers voted to revise parts of the country’s virus laws and allow noncompliant businesses to be fined.

“Verifying whether a business is complying with requests takes time,” Aoyama said. “Regardless of the timing, the law should take priority.”

Food establishments in the capital region — which consists of Tokyo and Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures — have been asked to close by 9 p.m. through the end of March, even after the state of emergency is lifted.

While governors can issue business closure requests even after the end of state of emergency, monetary fines handed down by local leaders will not be possible, making it unclear what measures governors can take to prevent a rebound in new COVID-19 cases after society reopens.

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