Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area on Thursday, authorizing more robust measures to fight a recent surge in coronavirus infections.
The emergency declaration, which will be effective from Friday to Feb. 7, entails asking people to stay home and calls for restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol by 7 p.m. and close by 8 p.m. Gyms, department stores and movie theaters will also be subject to the shorter hours.
Residents of the area covered by the state of emergency -- Tokyo, which is set to host the postponed Olympics this summer, and adjacent Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures -- will be asked to refrain from nonessential trips outside their homes, especially after 8 p.m.
The move comes as Tokyo confirmed 2,447 new coronavirus cases which eclipsed the previous record set Wednesday by more than 800. The nationwide tally topped 7,500, exceeding the previous day's record of 6,004 cases and fanning concerns that hospitals could soon become overwhelmed.
"I am certain we can beat this. But to do so, we have to ask everyone to live with some restrictions," Suga said at a press conference. "I will do everything in my power to improve the situation in one month," he said.
Companies will be encouraged to have employees work from home or stagger their shifts, with the goal of reducing the number of people in the office by 70 percent. Events will be capped at 5,000 people or 50 percent of venue capacity.
The measures are more relaxed than those under the previous state of emergency last spring, which saw schools and many businesses nationwide temporarily close and events canceled.
There will be no punishment for those who fail to comply, unlike the hard lockdowns other parts of the world have imposed. University entry exams will be held later this month as scheduled.
The government will increase financial support for dining and drinking establishments that cooperate with its request to shorten business hours from up to 40,000 yen ($390) a day to a maximum of 60,000 yen, and "name and shame" those that do not. Take-out and delivery will be exempt from the 8 p.m. cutoff.
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The decision was finalized by the government's COVID-19 response task force after an advisory panel of experts on infectious diseases and public health as well as economic and legal matters approved the move.
It comes mere months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which are set to kick off in July after being postponed from last summer.
Suga reiterated his commitment to holding the games in a "safe and secure" manner. When asked by a reporter about skepticism among the Japanese public about whether they could still be held, he said he was confident enthusiasm will grow once vaccinations begin next month.
The state of emergency will be lifted after the situation improves from Stage 4, the worst level on the government's four-point scale, to Stage 3. That would require improvement in key indicators including the number of infections per week falling below 25 for every 100,000 people.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the response to COVID-19, told parliament the emergency declaration may be lifted if the daily number of coronavirus cases in Tokyo falls to 500, or about one-fifth of the current level.
The Tokyo metropolitan area has been hardest hit, accounting for about half of all cases in the country in recent weeks. Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama also saw record infections on Thursday, with 679, 450 and 460, respectively.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had called on the government to declare a state of emergency, warning that the health care system is on the brink of collapse. She had asked restaurants and bars to close by 10 p.m., but many have not complied and the outbreak has only worsened after the New Year holidays.
"The situation is critical and serious. We have to completely stop the flow of people" to stem the outbreak, Koike said at a press conference.
Other parts of the country are also seeing increases in coronavirus cases, with Osaka and Aichi prefectures reporting 607 and 431 cases on Thursday, both record highs for a second day in a row.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said he intends to ask the government to add his prefecture to the area covered by the state of emergency. Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura has said he would do the same if the worrying trend continues for several more days.
But Suga denied the need to do so, saying health experts did not see it as necessary at the moment.
Legislation was enacted last year giving the government the authority to make the emergency declaration, which provides a legal basis for governors to ask residents to stay home and enables stronger steps to deal with outbreaks.
The steps include the requisition of medical supplies and food as well as expropriation of private land for emergency health facilities.
Suga said the government would submit a revision to the special measures law soon making it possible to punish businesses that refuse to comply with its requests.
A state of emergency was previously declared in Tokyo and six prefectures in early April last year during Japan's first wave of infections, and was expanded nationwide later that month. It was lifted in steps in May as coronavirus cases subsided.
Suga had been reluctant to repeat the move, hoping instead to strike a balance between curbing outbreaks and reviving the battered economy. But the prime minister has faced mounting pressure as his support ratings have plummeted in part due to public dissatisfaction with his COVID-19 response.
A third wave of infections observed since November across the country, by far the largest yet, forced Suga last month to announce the suspension of his signature "Go To Travel" subsidy program for promoting domestic tourism.
The government has also halted new entries into Japan of nonresident foreign nationals due to concerns over new, potentially more infectious coronavirus variants discovered in Britain and South Africa.