Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura faced a backlash from experts, local businesses and even his own advisers on Tuesday after he said that, once the central government fulfills his request to declare a state of emergency in the prefecture, business closure requests need to be issued to a wider breadth of private and public establishments than in previous emergencies.
Critics say that calling for the closure of department stores and theme parks — where few cluster infections of the coronavirus have been reported, if any — is unscientific and merely symbolic, and would exact an unnecessary burden upon an already struggling economy.
As the central government reportedly prepares to declare states of emergency as early as Friday in Tokyo, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, the push and pull in Osaka provides a taste of what happens when a public official tries to take proactive steps in Japan, where virus measures remain largely voluntary.
“The health care system is under incredible stress right now,” Yoshimura told reporters Tuesday. “We need stronger restrictions to suppress the movement of people.”
After announcing he would submit a formal request that the central government declare a state of emergency in Osaka, Yoshimura said business closure requests may be issued to theme parks, department stores and other large commercial facilities.
But some members of Osaka Prefecture’s coronavirus advisory board were hesitant to endorse those measures, citing concerns that expansive closure requests would not only gouge the economy, but would have little impact in containing the fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already reached record-breaking heights in the area.
Local businesses are resistant as well.
The Japan Department Stores Association on Tuesday urged the Osaka Prefectural Government to reconsider.
“Virus precautions are being taken, staff haven’t tested positive and no cluster infections have been reported in department stores,” said Yoshio Murata, president of the JDSA and Takashimaya Co., the operator of a department store chain.
“Department stores operate under a large number of contracts and agreements between different businesses, so the impact of a closure request would be immeasurable,” Murata told NHK on Tuesday. “I ask that (department stores) be removed from the scope of these requests.”
Business closure requests were issued broadly to museums, internet cafes and other establishments of varying size and purpose during the country’s first state of emergency in April of last year, but the scope was mostly narrowed to bars and dining establishments during the second emergency earlier this year.
During the entirety of the first state of emergency and most of the second, however, those requests were strictly voluntary. It was in February, after the country’s virus laws were revised, that it became possible for governors to impose monetary fines on businesses that failed to comply with repeated requests to reduce or suspend operations.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was the first to employ these new powers after she issued business reduction orders — restaurants and bars were asked to close by 8 p.m. — to more than two dozen noncompliant food establishments just days before the state of emergency was lifted on March 22.
Those businesses were referred to the Tokyo District Court, which is in the process of deciding whether their infractions justify a fine of up to ¥300,000.
On Tuesday, Yoshimura also announced that restaurants may be asked to cease all sales of alcohol, close by 8 p.m. on weekdays and suspend all operations on weekends.
A third state of emergency in Osaka, Tokyo and Hyogo appears inevitable — media reports Wednesday said Kyoto Prefecture may join that list — but officials have only provided hints and suggestions as to the shape and scope new measures might take.
Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido announced Wednesday that he will request a state of emergency. The prefecture reported an unprecedented 563 new cases that day.
Tokyo saw 843 new cases Wednesday, the highest daily tally since late January.
Where and for how long the states of emergency take effect will be decided by the central government pending further discussions with the relevant governors.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has not yet submitted a request to the central government for a state of emergency but could do so after the capital holds its weekly coronavirus monitoring meeting Thursday afternoon.
The Mainichi newspaper reported Wednesday that Koike is looking to declare a state of emergency from April 29 until May 9, a comparatively short period of time but one that would encompass Golden Week, a weeklong annual holiday that begins later this month.
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