• Kyodo, Jiji

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People in the Tokyo metropolitan region remained cautious Monday, a day after the area became the last in Japan to exit the coronavirus state of emergency introduced in early January.

Some were worried that the lifting of the measure in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures could lead to a rebound in the number of COVID-19 cases there. Others said they will continue to refrain from going out too much to avoid catching the virus.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government has now lifted the emergency nationwide despite concern that the country could see a resurgence of infections as it gears up for the start of a new academic and business year in April, with cases of highly infectious variant strains continuing to rise.

Restaurants and bars in Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures will be asked to close by 9 p.m. between Monday and March 31, extending opening times by one hour from when the state of emergency was in place.

For April and later, the four prefectural governments plan to allow these facilities to operate even longer in stages while continuing to ask them for the time being to close earlier than under normal conditions.

Many local governments are continuing to ask residents not to hold cherry blossom-viewing parties. In Tokyo, Ueno Park is asking visitors not to hold parties with picnic sheets for the second year in a row.

Still, the rows of cherry trees — which were closed off to the public last year — have been opened up for one-way traffic after the park decided to allow blossom-viewing while walking.

“We want people to take preventive measures such as wearing masks and disinfecting their hands when visiting the park,” a Tokyo metropolitan government official said.

Despite the lifting of the emergency, taxi driver Etsuro Sato did not think that his situation would improve as he waited to pick up customers at Tokyo Station on Monday morning.

“My fares have fallen to a third of pre-pandemic levels, and I haven’t had as many passengers as I used to have,” Sato, 73, said. “As long as telework and reduced business hours continue, my situation will not change.”

Kazumune Kotera, a construction company employee commuting for a client meeting in Ibaraki Prefecture, also did not see much changing.

“Working from home is going to continue, and I will refrain from going outside unless there is business,” said Kotera, a 56-year-old resident of Chiba Prefecture. “I won’t change anything in my life,” he said.

A 38-year-old female company employee from Saitama Prefecture, which has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants in the metropolitan area, was anxious about the prospect of the coming spring holidays leading to an increase in the number of people going outside.

“I went to Tokyo this weekend and I was just surprised by the large number of people out and about there, which was far more than I’d expected,” said the woman, asking that she not be identified.

Shiori Yoshikawa, a 46-year-old company employee from Chiba city, said the government should come up with new virus countermeasures instead of repeatedly declaring and lifting states of emergency as cases increase.

Aiming to prevent a fourth wave of infections and bring the situation under control, the government will call for full-fledged measures against the deadly virus to be kept in place at eating and drinking establishments, while also strengthening the testing and medical service systems.

“We’ll work on containing the virus as soon as possible and taking back a safe and lively normal life,” Suga said in a speech at an annual convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday. “We’ll remain alert for coronavirus variants and aims to prevent a rebound of infections without lowering the guard.”

People enjoy the cherry blossoms at Tokyo's Ueno Park amid heavy rain on Sunday ahead of the lifting of the coronavirus state of emergency. | KYODO
People enjoy the cherry blossoms at Tokyo’s Ueno Park amid heavy rain on Sunday ahead of the lifting of the coronavirus state of emergency. | KYODO

The government will also expand screenings for coronavirus variants and monitoring tests on coronavirus carriers with no symptoms. It will also review its program of securing hospital beds for coronavirus patients and facilities hosting infected people with no or mild symptoms, in preparation for a possible new wave of infections.

On an NHK television program Sunday, health minister Norihisa Tamura said the government was also considering requiring all inbound travelers to undergo tests for new variants of the coronavirus. The stricter border controls currently only apply to 24 designated countries where coronavirus variants have been detected.

Attendance at large-scale events such as concerts and sports games will also be gradually eased following the lifting of the emergency. Numbers had been capped at half capacity up to a limit of 5,000, but this will be increased to 10,000.

According to data compiled by mobile communications carrier NTT Docomo Inc., the number of people moving through 19 out of 20 key train stations and entertainment districts in Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures as of 3 p.m. Sunday had decreased from a week earlier.

Foot traffic also saw an overall decline in over 70% of 95 key locations across the country, with the rainy weather thought to have been a factor.

On Saturday, when the weather was better in many parts of the country, a similar survey by NTT Docomo showed the number of people rose from a week earlier at nearly half of the survey points, with all 20 points in the Tokyo region showing an increase.

Suga declared a one-month emergency in the Tokyo region on Jan. 7 amid a surge in infections, later expanding it to a total of 11 prefectures and extending it for most of them by another month, to March 7. It was further extended by two weeks to Sunday for the capital and the three neighboring prefectures.

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