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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday that the state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures will be extended until May 31 and expanded to Aichi and Fukuoka.

While dining establishments will be asked to continue to close by 8 p.m. and not sell alcohol, department stores that were asked to close when the order was handed down in late April can reopen their doors, but only until 8 p.m. Large events can now be held with up to 5,000 people in attendance or half the venue’s capacity.

In Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures, the order will take effect Wednesday.

Separately, less stringent contingency measures meant to prevent a state of emergency will be lifted in Miyagi Prefecture but extended until the end of May in Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ehime and Okinawa prefectures, and expanded to Hokkaido, Gifu and Mie.

“The flow of people in Tokyo and Osaka has decreased dramatically, demonstrating the effectiveness of these measures in reducing foot traffic,” Suga said Friday. “However, local health care systems are under great stress and new cases continue to emerge.”

On Friday, local officials reported 1,005 new cases in Osaka, 907 in Tokyo, 493 in Hyogo, 146 in Kyoto and a record-breaking 443 in Aichi.

The central government has been forced once again to extend efforts to contain the coronavirus, as a fourth wave sparked and inflamed by a growing list of highly contagious, deadlier variants continues to spread in major cities throughout the country.

After more than a year and three states of emergency, the public has clearly become fatigued, and the effectiveness of noncompulsory laws in reducing traffic and preventing mass gatherings is beginning to fade.

Alongside new cases, the national death toll has been rising at an increasing pace in recent months.

It took 11 months between February and December last year for the country’s death toll to reach 5,000, but four months for that figure to double between January and April.

Pedestrians on the streets of Tokyo's Shibuya Ward in early April | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Pedestrians on the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in early April | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

As new variants continue to emerge and the vaccine rollout continues at a slow pace, it’s unclear what else officials can do, beyond expanding the emergency further, to stifle the virus until the population is inoculated.

The ongoing state of emergency was initially declared in four prefectures — Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto — on April 25 and was set to expire Tuesday.

A viral rebound ensued after the central government began incrementally lifting its second state of emergency in March. The resulting fourth wave led public officials to employ quasi-emergency countermeasures — namely, asking restaurants and bars to close early — but the contagion didn’t subside.

New cases began to take off in Osaka and Hyogo in mid-March, and at the same time they began to steadily increase in Tokyo, where the second state of emergency was lifted three weeks later.

Mutated strains of the coronavirus — namely the N501Y variant first reported late last year in the U.K. — are close to overtaking the prevalence of the original virus in Osaka, Hyogo and Tokyo, where officials are using genomic screening and blood tests to retroactively detect variants following positive COVID-19 tests.

The N501Y variant has been found to be 1.9 times more contagious abroad but 1.3 times more contagious in Japan, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

“More contagious variants are replacing and overtaking the original strain of the coronavirus,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during a news conference Friday. “New cases are emerging more broadly across different age demographics, and the flow of people is the most crucial way to stop the virus from spreading out of control.”

More recently, the L452R variant found in a strain of the virus thought to have originated in India — referred to as B.1.617 — has been causing concern.

According to the health ministry, of the more than 32,000 new cases reported between April 19 and 25, about 15,000 were screened for variants. Of those, more than 9,000 were found to contain mutated strains of the coronavirus.

While variant screening has plateaued in recent weeks, the number of cases in which variants are detected is growing rapidly.

Commuters at Shimokitazawa Station in Tokyo on April 30 | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Commuters at Shimokitazawa Station in Tokyo on April 30 | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Stemming the flow of people may be the only way to stop these variants, but the cyclical enforcement and lifting of countermeasures across multiple months is exacting upon the economy an altogether different kind of pain.

Last month, the Daiwa Institute of Research projected that a monthlong state of emergency could trigger a loss in gross domestic product of up to ¥600 billion. The Daiichi Life Research Institute estimated Friday that this figure could reach ¥800 billion now that the order has been extended by more than three weeks.

The hit to GDP could cause 45,000 people to lose their jobs, according to the institute.

Meanwhile, the extension of the state of emergency could affect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, despite what organizers say.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who said last month that Japan’s third state of emergency “would have no impact” on the Tokyo Games, had been expected to pay a visit to the country later this month. But on Friday, Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, said Bach’s visit “will be very difficult.”

As of Friday, more than 200,000 people had signed an online petition published Monday calling for the Tokyo Games to be canceled. It criticizes the risk the global sporting event would pose to the domestic population and the burden it would place on the local health care system.

The IOC announced Thursday it had reached an agreement with the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. and German company BioNTech to provide vaccines for athletes and other participants in the games.

The third state of emergency is now set to expire on May 31, at which point less than two months will remain until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games, which is slated to open July 23.

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