The government is desperate to avoid yet another coronavirus state of emergency as COVID-19 cases surge in several areas ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Perhaps to that end, the government Thursday decided for the first time to take pre-emergency measures in hot-spot prefectures under a revised special law that took effect in February. But if Japan fails to contain a resurgence of infections in many parts of the country, it may have to issue a COVID-19 state of emergency for the third time.

That would pose a new obstacle for the Summer Games, for which enthusiasm among Japanese is already waning amid the global health crisis.

A harbinger for Tokyo

The government designated Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures as areas where pre-emergency measures can be taken, including compulsory steps that come with penalties for violators.

The decision on the pre-emergency measures, to be implemented from Monday until May 5 in six cities — the city of Osaka, Kobe, Sendai and Hyogo’s Nishinomiya, Amagasaki and Ashiya — comes as a fourth wave of cases appears to be taking shape.

Of the three prefectures, Osaka and Hyogo exited the country’s second state of emergency at the end of February ahead of Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures.

Osaka's Dotonbori nightlife district on Friday | KYODO
Osaka’s Dotonbori nightlife district on Friday | KYODO

By late March, Osaka’s daily tally of new infections had exceeded 200. The central government, however, was cautious about introducing the pre-emergency measures as it wanted to examine the effectiveness of restrictions that continued after the emergency, such as requests for restaurants and bars to shorten their opening hours.

The mood changed Tuesday, when Osaka’s daily case count hit 432, topping 400 for the first time since its exit from the emergency.

A day earlier, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura had said he would ask the national government to implement pre-emergency measures.

“We have no choice but to accept the request,” a source close to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said.

On Wednesday, the government broadly decided to put Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi under the pre-emergency measures.

While the coronavirus is also surging in many other areas in the country, including Yamagata, Ehime and Okinawa prefectures, the government is particularly concerned about how the situation might evolve in Tokyo, where cases have slowly risen since it exited the emergency.

“The situation in Kansai is what it will be like in Tokyo in two weeks,” a government source said.

Since Tokyo and its three neighbors became the last prefectures to exit the country’s second state of emergency on March 21, the number of new infection cases in the region has been on an uptrend. Tokyo reported 475 cases Thursday, the highest figure since the emergency was lifted.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announces new COVID-19 countermeasures for Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures during a task force meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announces new COVID-19 countermeasures for Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures during a task force meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday.

The games must go on

During the monthlong pre-emergency measures, the government will “nip any spread of infection in the bud,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stressed at a news conference Thursday.

Olympics stakeholders, including the central government, may be concerned that a rise in cases could spark a fresh debate over whether to hold the Tokyo Games this summer.

Moreover, if public support for Suga’s Cabinet drops due to the resurgence of the coronavirus, he may have to reconsider his election strategy, including whether to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election.

A Lower House general election has to be held by autumn, when the terms of the current members expire.

“The Olympics will go ahead” as scheduled, a senior government official declared Thursday.

The same day, Yoshimura said that the Olympic torch relay should skip the city of Osaka.

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