Japan is considering implementing less strict coronavirus restrictions in areas including Tokyo and Osaka on June 21 when the state of emergency is lifted, a government official said Friday, as the country seeks to contain the health crisis with less than 50 days to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympics.
While the state of emergency for most of the 10 prefectures covered will be lifted on the scheduled end date of June 20, Tokyo and Osaka are likely to remain under a quasi-emergency with less strict measures, the official said.
Through the transition to the quasi-emergency in the capital and other areas, the government aims to prevent a resurgence of the novel coronavirus ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which are set to start on July 23.
In areas that shift to the quasi-emergency, the government plans to continue requiring bars and restaurants to shorten their opening hours but is considering the option of lifting a ban on sales of alcoholic beverages, the official said.
A state of emergency authorizes requests and orders for the closure of certain facilities, while a quasi-emergency only allows for shortening opening hours.
While some in the government have called for a total lifting of the state of emergency, others remain cautious, particularly as the medical systems in Okinawa and Hokkaido remain strained by COVID-19 patients.
A formal decision will be made at a government meeting to be held as early as Thursday, after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meets relevant ministers and a subcommittee of experts to discuss restrictions on major events to be held in July and August.
The new restrictions are expected to be applied to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The restrictions currently in place include limiting attendance at events to 5,000 people or 50% of venue capacity.
Aside from Hokkaido and Okinawa, many indicators have improved to levels justifying a lifting of the state of emergency. But as coronavirus cases quickly rebounded after the previous state of emergency was lifted in March, the government hopes to maintain anti-virus measures.
New COVID-19 infections in Tokyo have inched down during the last month of emergency restrictions, although authorities remain concerned about the spread of variants and the continued strain on medical resources.
On Friday, the head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Edano, called for the Games to be postponed or canceled, saying there was an “extremely high risk” of an explosive outbreak in August and September if they went ahead.
Polls have shown many of the Japanese public oppose holding the games this year, worried about the flood of athletes and officials from overseas. Japan has effectively been closed to foreign visitors since the pandemic broke out last year. The Japanese government and Olympic organizers have said the games would go ahead — barring “Armageddon” — as one International Olympic Committee member put it. They are scheduled to start on July 23.
A Tokyo 2020 Olympic coronavirus expert, Nobuhiko Okabe, said completely shutting out the virus would be too difficult and that the focus should be on minimizing risk.
“Unfortunately, keeping the number (of coronavirus infections) to zero is impossible, so I believe the focus should be on minimizing the number as much as possible,” he told a news conference.
The cooperation of athletes and delegates was vital to prevent a major outbreak, he said.
Opposition leader Edano, however, said it was not too late to cancel or postpone the games.
“I can understand the desire to go ahead for the sake of the athletes, but they should either postpone for another year or cancel the games,” Edano told a news conference.
The Japan Medical Workers Unions Federation on Friday called for the games be canceled or postponed in view of the burden on an already struggling medical system.
An expert panel led by medical adviser Shigeru Omi is likely to warn of the risks of allowing domestic spectators in a report expected before June 20, but will not directly address the pros and cons of holding the event, the Jiji news agency reported.
Japanese Olympics Committee board member Kaori Yamaguchi, an Olympic judo medalist, echoed those concerns, saying that the games should be held without spectators to ensure the safety of the public.
Japan has recorded more than 760,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 13,800 deaths, while only 12% of its population has received at least one vaccination shot.
Japan plans to finish vaccinating all those who want shots by October-November, Suga said in the Diet this week.
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