Japan on Saturday relaxed a rule limiting the size of crowds at professional sports matches, movie theaters and other events, in yet another sign of a gradual return to social and economic activities at pre-coronavirus pandemic levels.
A professional baseball game between the DeNA BayStars and the Yomiuri Giants at Yokohama Stadium drew a total of 13,106 spectators, making it the first time the number of spectators in domestic sporting events has topped the 10,000 mark since the outbreak of the virus.
Both Nippon Professional Baseball and soccer's J-League held matches with over 10,000 spectators after the government lifted the 5,000-person cap on large events, allowing the sporting bodies to hold them with up to 50 percent capacity.
Reservations for domestic flights of All Nippon Airways for Saturday -- the first day of a four-day weekend -- totaled 87,000, the highest level since Feb. 28. The Japanese carrier said it has an average of 69,000 reservations a day for the four-day period.
Such developments came three days after the Tokyo metropolitan government lifted a request that restaurants, bars, karaoke parlors and other alcohol-providing businesses in the capital's 23 wards close operations at 10 p.m.
"It is important to balance the prevention of infection and the promotion of economic activities," economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Saturday.
"Easing restrictions (on sports and cultural events) would represent a major step toward that goal," Nishimura, who is also in charge of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, told reporters during a visit to Oita Prefecture, western Japan.
Amid signs of a recent plateauing in nationwide coronavirus cases, the 50 percent attendance cap has been fully scrapped for small cinemas and theaters deemed to have low infection risk.
T Joy Co., which operates around 20 cinema complexes across Japan, and numerous mini theaters began allowing all seats at venues to be booked from first screenings on Saturday.
But major movie theater chains Toho Cinemas and Aeon Cinema, as well as operators of live stage shows and concerts, have decided to keep the 50 percent restriction in place for the time being.
Among professional baseball teams, the BayStars raised the spectator cap to 16,000 at Yokohama Stadium, the Giants to 19,000 at Tokyo Dome and the Yakult Swallows to 14,500 at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.
The government will decide whether to keep the attendance rule in place beyond November after reviewing the novel coronavirus and seasonal influenza infection trends, according to officials.
Speaking at a news conference Friday in Tokyo, Nishimura said that avoiding the 3Cs -- confined spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings -- was a prerequisite for relaxing restrictions.
"I want (business operators) to thoroughly enforce basic measures to prevent the spread of the virus," he said.
On Saturday, the Tokyo metropolitan government confirmed 218 new coronavirus cases, down from 220 the previous day. The capital's cumulative total now stands at 24,046, by far the highest among Japan's 47 prefectures.
Since mid-August, the number of new cases has been trending downward, with Tokyo confirming 77 daily infections on Sept. 7, the lowest in almost two months. It also compared to the 400 level logged in a peak period in early August.
The capital has downgraded its coronavirus alert to the second-highest of four levels, meaning "vigilance against a resurgence of the virus is needed."
Across Japan, the single-day tally on Friday exceeded 570, bringing the total number of infections to around 78,800, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama in February. The death toll stood at 1,510.