• Kyodo, Bloomberg

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The government is considering putting Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures under a state of emergency from Sunday to May 11, in an attempt to curb surging COVID-19 infections, a senior official said Thursday.

The government stepped up preparations the same day to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency in the prefectures, with tougher restrictions — such as the closure of department stores and shopping malls — expected to be in place through the Golden Week holidays.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to finalize the decision at a task force meeting Friday, as a resurgence of infections puts pressure on the medical system with just three months until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics.

The state of emergency is expected to be in effect for about three weeks through mid-May, with one government official saying it is crucial to stop people from moving around during the upcoming holidays — usually one of the busiest times of the year for travel.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura called on the government not to waste any time, saying the measure should begin this weekend. Osaka Prefecture, the current epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the country, reported a record 1,242 new infections on Wednesday.

The government will examine the situation, including the availability of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, and will make a decision after determining the necessary restrictions as well as the appropriate time period and area, its top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, told a news conference.

Tokyo and Osaka plan to ask major commercial facilities such as department stores, shopping malls and amusement parks to temporarily close.

Yoshimura has said he will ask restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol and to close on weekends, a step further than his current request for eateries to close by 8 p.m. He also said sports events would either be canceled or held without spectators.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is also seeking to ban alcohol at restaurants and bars regardless of the time of day, metropolitan government sources said.

“We are talking with the central government. We’re now narrowing down on details,” Koike told reporters Thursday.

Koike said she has asked for the state of emergency, stressing that the capital “cannot miss this timing” amid the rapid spread of COVID-19 variants.

The government could make exceptions for certain facilities in order to soften the blow to the economy, which is already reeling from COVID-19 restrictions and the loss of foreign tourists due to the pandemic, people familiar with the matter said.

Infections have been back on the rise across the country despite a quasi-state of emergency covering 10 prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka.

Tokyo reported 861 new cases Thursday, the second day in a row that the tally topped 800. On Wednesday, the daily nationwide total topped 5,000 for the first time in three months.

Health experts have warned of the spread of highly contagious variants of the virus, with a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry panel estimating that they account for about 80% of all cases in Osaka and Hyogo, and a rapidly growing share in Tokyo.

Suga has said the declaration of what will be the country’s third state of emergency, following those in April last year and January this year, will not affect the staging of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, reiterating that the government will continue efforts to ensure they are “safe and secure.”

But public skepticism remains high, with 39.2% of respondents in a Kyodo News poll this month saying the games should be canceled and 32.8% saying they should be rescheduled.

While Japan has so far succeeded in keeping COVID-19 infections and deaths at far lower levels than those seen in much of Europe and the U.S., its vaccine program has yet to kick into high gear, meaning restricting activities is the most powerful tool Suga has for reining in case numbers.

“If the Olympics are really going to be held in July, I think the infections need to settle down by late May or early June,” said Haruka Sakamoto, a public health researcher at the University of Tokyo. “Therefore, the government is making stronger interventions relatively early on.”

Central and local governments are tussling over how harsh the measures should be under the third emergency since the pandemic broke out. Tighter restrictions on activity could delay the economy’s recovery and deal a heavy blow to struggling businesses.

If adopted in all four regions from Tokyo to Kyoto, the emergency measures would cover close to a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.

“I would like to work with local governments and examine the contents of their requests, and then make a decision as soon as this week,” Suga said Wednesday. In previous situations, Suga consulted with experts before making a formal announcement.

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