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In an attempt to contain the coronavirus and a variant that is rapidly spreading, Osaka officials began street patrols Monday to enforce safety and social distancing protocols at restaurants and bars.

But with Osaka and neighboring Hyogo Prefecture seeing a large rise in cases involving the far more infectious U.K. strain of the virus, the effectiveness of the measures being taken in both prefectures to prevent its spread is uncertain.

On Monday night, under the one-month quasi-emergency measures, some 40 prefectural and city officials began patrols of nearly 40,000 establishments in the north, central and southern parts of Osaka city, where there are large concentrations of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and karaoke establishments. In neighboring Hyogo Prefecture, similar patrols began in four cities including Kobe.

Patrols in both prefectures will be conducted until May 5. City officials are visiting individual establishments to ensure that not only are they closing their doors at 8 p.m. as ordered, but also that employees and customers are wearing masks, only taking them off when eating and drinking. They are also checking that panels separate customers seated at tables and that other social distancing measures are being followed.

Karaoke establishments in both prefectures are being asked to close.

Businesses that do not follow the rule on shortening hours could be subject to fines of up to ¥200,000.

In Osaka, the new rules and their enforcement have led to criticism and questions about how practical it is for the prefecture to try and monitor so many establishments, and whether or not the new policies will actually reduce the number of coronavirus infections.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura (right) and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui meet officials before conducting patrols, at Osaka city hall on Monday. | KYODO
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura (right) and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui meet officials before conducting patrols, at Osaka city hall on Monday. | KYODO

On Monday evening, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura acknowledged that many residents are complaining about the new rules. But he said he believes they are the best way to try to keep the virus from spreading and overwhelming local medical facilities.

“I know it’s difficult for bar and restaurant owners to tell customers to put on their masks and cover their mouths, but there’s been a rapid spread in coronavirus infections,” Yoshimura said during an interview with a local television station. “While I think simply asking bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. will have an effect in reducing infection rates, the question becomes ‘What about measures before 8 p.m., during their hours of business?’ and so we decided on these checks as a way to further control the spread of the virus.”

Since mid-March, Osaka and Hyogo have recorded the nation’s largest numbers of the U.K. variant of the coronavirus.

Osaka reported 341 coronavirus infections Monday, and of those 270 involved the U.K. variant. On Thursday, Hyogo reported that 56 of 70 people outside the city of Kobe over the one-week period leading up to March 21 were infected with the U.K. variant.

Osaka recorded 719 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, the most ever, while Hyogo saw 276 new cases.

Although Japan first confirmed cases of the more infectious U.K. variant in December, including two cases at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and three cases at Kansai International Airport, Yoshimura and health experts noted the the number of variant infections began rapidly rising in Osaka and Hyogo from around mid-March.

While there is no definitive explanation yet as to why Osaka and Hyogo in particular have seen a rapid rise in U.K. variant cases, one reason cited by Osaka Prefecture officials and medical experts is that Osaka and Hyogo have conducted more screenings for the variant than other prefectures. But there are other factors as well.

“The state of emergency declaration ended earlier in Osaka than in other prefectures, on March 1. This led to a large number of people moving around and that appears to have led to the rapid increase in the number of cases,” Yuji Fujikura, an infectious disease specialist at the National Defense Medical College, said on a March 30 news program.

A man gestures as he walks in the Dotonbori area of Osaka. | AFP-JIJI
A man gestures as he walks in the Dotonbori area of Osaka. | AFP-JIJI

Yoshimura noted that many of those in Osaka infected with the virus variant are younger people, who were particularly active in late March — just before the start of the new school term — and often gathered with friends at restaurants and karaoke establishments before graduation or school entrance ceremonies, where they likely became infected.

Medical experts that are part of the prefecture’s virus task force are still trying to get a grip on what the best response would be.

“We’ve seen an increase in variant cases, but further analysis of the variant’s infectiousness is necessary,” Kazunori Tomono, an Osaka University Medical School professor and task force member, said during a meeting with Yoshimura in late March.

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