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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Thursday new COVID-19 countermeasures will be imposed for one month beginning Monday in Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures amid fears of a fourth wave of the coronavirus.

“New cases (of COVID-19) are increasing dramatically and threatening the stability of local health care systems,” Suga said Thursday. Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures “are in need of targeted, more restricted measures to contain the virus, and to prevent these regional waves from expanding nationwide.”

The new countermeasures — often referred to as manbо̄, the shortened version of its full name in Japanese — allow local leaders to deploy restrictions, albeit less strict than those seen during a state of emergency, in the hopes of preventing the need for stronger measures.

The measures are possible following a revision of the country’s infectious disease laws passed by the Diet in February and can be enforced in regions designated by the central government. This is the first time that they will be put into practice.

The legal revision was intended to offer more options to the central and local governments to prevent the virus from spreading on a large scale, but the differences between the new measures and measures taken under a state of emergency, however, are mostly marginal. Most of the countermeasures possible under a state of emergency can also be issued through manbо̄.

The biggest differences between measures taken under a state of emergency and the one issued on Thursday is that the latter gives local leaders more freedom to enforce targeted measures in specific neighborhoods, towns and districts within their jurisdiction.

In comparison, a state of emergency is declared for an entire prefecture, which may be less than ideal if infections are only spreading in specific cities or districts.

Beginning Monday, the governors of Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi will, among other measures, ask dining establishments to close by 8 p.m. and call on residents to stay indoors at night to prevent large gatherings. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has said the prefecture plans to impose restrictions only for the city of Osaka.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of COVID-19 policies, speaks at a government meeting on coronavirus measures in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of COVID-19 policies, speaks at a government meeting on coronavirus measures in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO

On Thursday, Yoshimura also said the Olympic torch relay slated to pass through the city of Osaka on April 14 should be canceled since the new measures will still be in place then. The torch relay elsewhere in Osaka Prefecture can still be held, he said, though a final decision will be made by organizers.

Unlike a state of emergency, the new measures, which will be effective through May 5, don’t require prefectural governments to get permission from the Diet to enact measures.

Another key difference is the size of possible monetary fines and the scope of business closure requests.

With the latest measure, officials can ask businesses to reduce operations, with a maximum fine for noncompliance of ¥200,000. Under the state of emergency, businesses that disobey repeat requests to reduce or suspend operations can be referred to the local court, which will then decide if their infraction warrants a fine of up ¥300,000.

Small to mid-sized businesses will receive up to ¥100,000 for complying with business reduction requests issued while the measures are in place, Nishimura said, while large firms can receive up to ¥200,000.

New cases of the coronavirus have been climbing throughout most of the country since early March, but began to escalate in recent weeks, most notably in Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi as well as in Aichi, Okinawa and Yamagata. On Thursday, Osaka Prefecture reported 616 new infections, the first time it has topped 600 cases since Jan. 16, while Hyogo Prefecture logged 199 new cases and Miyagi 133.

Japan saw more than 2,800 cases on Wednesday, the highest daily figure in more than two months.

Parts of Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures will be designated as areas where stonger COVID-19 measures will be taken. | KYODO
Parts of Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures will be designated as areas where stonger COVID-19 measures will be taken. | KYODO

While the country’s first state of emergency in April 2020 is thought to have at least been effective in reducing foot traffic, the second one in January was less impactful due in large part to diminishing public compliance with the country’s voluntary virus countermeasures.

The fatigue felt by millions who have spent almost 15 months under a shadow cast by the coronavirus is leading critics to question the effectiveness of noncompulsory measures further dulled by smaller penalties.

More contagious variants of COVID-19 are contributing to a nationwide surge in new cases that became more pronounced throughout the country in recent weeks.

Japan’s second emergency — which was declared in early January in 11 prefectures then extended in all but one (Tochigi) — was lifted in six prefectures in early February, including Osaka and Hyogo.

There are no reports yet of new countermeasures being taken in any of the other prefectures where new cases are rising. In the greater Tokyo area, where the state of emergency was lifted on March 22, the fear of a delayed resurgence looms large. The capital reported 475 cases on Thursday, up from 394 the week before and its highest figure since Feb. 10.

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