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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday approved stricter measures to stamp out soaring coronavirus cases for Tokyo, Okinawa and Kyoto — effective Monday — as variants pose a fresh threat to a public already frazzled by monthslong restrictions.

The measures authorize prefectural governors to request and order establishments, primarily bars and restaurants, to close by 8 p.m. in designated municipalities, as opposed to the prefecture-wide implementation seen in a state of emergency. They will be in place in all of the capital’s 23 wards and six cities — Musashino, Hachioji, Machida, Chofu, Fuchu and Tachikawa — through May 11, while they will be implemented in the city of Kyoto and nine cities in Okinawa Prefecture — Naha, Nago, Uruma, Okinawa, Ginowan, Urasoe, Tomigusuku, Itoman and Nanjo — until May 5.

“After consulting with experts, we’ve decided to implement the measures in Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa considering that the number of new cases is increasing and there is a concern that medical resources would be stretched thin,” Suga told the press Friday evening.

They were already implemented in several cities in Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures on Monday.

Businesses that refuse to comply with an early closure order will be slapped with a nonpenal fine of up to ¥200,000, while those that comply will be granted compensation based on the scale of their business operations. The measures, unlike a state of emergency, do not give governors the power to order a temporary business closure and are significantly weaker than lockdown measures practiced in Europe.

The request, issued less than three weeks after a state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo, is the latest evidence that the upturn in cases has outpaced the government’s expectations, with the public becoming desensitized to the impact of such warnings.

In ending the emergency declaration, the central government essentially conceded that a further spike was inevitable, and instead shifted its focus to minimizing another wave of cases. However, both the government and public health experts have now been forced to reckon with the variants’ stronger transmissibility, which has driven up cases and threatens to overwhelm the health care system.

In the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, a highly infectious strain of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom — N501Y — now accounts for a third of new infections, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government’s coronavirus response.

“We’re extremely alarmed by the situation,” Nishimura said, urging the public to avoid nonessential outings and traveling in and out of the targeted regions, even though there is nothing forcing people to comply.

“Although the measures target only specific areas, we’re going to implement very strong measures to contain the virus from spreading within them, as infections are rapidly becoming rampant.”

People walk past Tokyo Station on Thursday. | REUTERS
People walk past Tokyo Station on Thursday. | REUTERS

In addition to shorter business hours, the minister said visits by municipal officials to restaurants to check on COVID-19 countermeasures would be reinforced. Random testing aimed at asymptomatic people, currently conducted at stations, will also take place at factories and both school and work dormitories in regions with rising infections, he added.

On Thursday, a senior administration official flatly denied that the measures’ implementation will affect the prospects of the Summer Games.

The central government terminated the last remaining state of emergency in Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures — Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa — on March 21.

At a news conference on March 18, Suga vowed to prevent a resurgence with a five-pillar plan, which included increasing the screening ratio for new variants to 40% of positive samples.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato revealed Thursday that the figure for variant screening was 32% nationwide, and 23% in Tokyo and 14% in Okinawa between March 22 and 28.

Adding to the nation’s woes, key indices reflecting the country’s COVID-19 performance show the situation is quickly deteriorating. As of Wednesday, the hospital bed occupancy rate for coronavirus patients, for example, stood at 25% in Tokyo and 35% in Kyoto — above the 20% threshold indicating infection is spreading rapidly. In Okinawa, the figure was 57%, exceeding the 50% benchmark that indicates an “explosive” spread of cases and serves as a basis for declaring a state of emergency.

A number of prefectures currently not subject to the measures have higher numbers across the various benchmarks, with the central government doing little to clarify a clear standard that should be applied. The occupancy rate in Nara Prefecture was 63% as of Wednesday, but the central government decided against adding it to the mix.

During a regular news conference Friday morning, Kato denied a need for a stronger state of emergency in Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara prefectures. In Nara’s case, he noted that a rise in cases there has been attributed to an inflow of infected people from Osaka and infection clusters have not occurred frequently at the prefectural capital’s restaurants.

The measures are deployed when “an infection is spreading widely in a certain area within a prefecture and there’s a risk that infections will spread further throughout the prefecture,” Kato explained.

Yoshihide Suga | KYODO
Yoshihide Suga | KYODO

The central government selects areas where the so-called manbō — the abbreviated version of the measures’ full name in Japanese — will be applied based on requests from governors, in addition to an assessment of how the infection is spreading, Kato said, justifying the lack of inclusion of Nara and Tokyo’s neighbors. The governors from those regions have not asked the central government to implement the measures.

“The (manbō) measures are operated from the standpoint that as long as each region thoroughly implements COVID-19 countermeasures, infections won’t spill over to larger areas or nationwide,” Kato said. “What’s important to consider is a state of emergency significantly disrupts livelihoods, so the measures are designed to prevent the situation from becoming one that requires a declaration.”

Nonetheless, Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s committee on the coronavirus response, said Friday that, “it’s obvious that a state of emergency will be considered if the measures’ effectiveness has been weakened.”

In the face of an exhausted public, the effectiveness of the measures or another state of emergency is unknown.

“It’s not like they’re magic,” the senior administration official said.

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