The Japanese government decided Friday to expand a COVID-19 state of emergency covering Tokyo and other areas to three more prefectures, a surprise move that comes as infections continue to surge ahead of the capital's hosting of the Summer Olympics.
Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima will be under tougher restrictions, including a ban on restaurants serving alcohol, from Sunday to May 31, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at a task force meeting.
The government had initially looked to put Okayama and Hiroshima under a quasi-emergency while keeping the one in place in Hokkaido but changed course at the urging of a panel of experts. As planned, it added three prefectures -- Gunma, Ishikawa and Kumamoto -- from Sunday to June 13.
The experts voiced concerns over the spread of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus and the increasing strain on hospitals, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the coronavirus response, told a parliamentary hearing.
Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who heads a government subcommittee on the coronavirus, said it was necessary to send a "strong message" by expanding the state of emergency, as more than a year of on-and-off restrictions have had a numbing effect on the public.
The abrupt shift could fuel criticism of Suga's sluggish response to the pandemic and call his leadership into question ahead of a general election to be held by the fall, as well as deepen concerns over staging the Tokyo Olympics from July 23 to Aug. 8.
Suga promised the games can still be held safely, telling a press conference, "We will ensure the proper virus measures are in place for athletes and staff to participate so they won't have to worry."
"By taking thorough steps to protect the lives and health of the Japanese people, I believe it is possible to realize a safe and secure games."
In areas placed under the state of emergency, restaurants are being told to close by 8 p.m. and refrain from serving alcohol or offering karaoke services.
Department stores and other major commercial facilities are also being told to temporarily shut or close early, and attendance at concerts and sports events has been capped at 5,000 or 50 percent of venue capacity.
Coronavirus cases have been on the rise nationwide in recent weeks, with the daily number of new infections topping 6,000 for the fourth straight day on Friday. The northern main island of Hokkaido saw a record 712 cases on Thursday.
There have been a growing number of reports of COVID-19 patients dying at home as it becomes increasingly difficult to find available hospital beds. The spread of coronavirus variants and a slow vaccine rollout have exacerbated the situation.
Japan has the worst vaccination rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, having administered at least one shot to just 3 percent of its population of 126 million.
"It will be difficult to improve the situation unless we take the strongest measures possible," said Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member of the Japan Medical Association who sits on the expert panel.
Suga meanwhile denied the need to declare a nationwide state of emergency, as the National Governors' Association has suggested, saying the government will take targeted steps in specific areas.
People on the street reacted to the decision to expand the state of emergency with a mixture of resignation to living under tougher restrictions and exasperation at the government's lack of urgency as infections continued to surge through the Golden Week holidays through early May.
"They're always behind the curve," observed Shigeru Ogura, a 74-year-old retiree who was taking a walk near the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.
Suga declared a state of emergency, the third since the start of the pandemic, in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo from April 25 to May 11, later adding Aichi and Fukuoka from Wednesday and extending it to May 31.
The quasi-emergency allows governors to single out municipalities with measures including telling restaurants to close early with a fine of up to 200,000 yen ($1,825) for noncompliance, while the state of emergency covers entire prefectures and carries a fine of up to 300,000 yen.
The following is a chronology of major events related to the novel coronavirus and Japan.
Jan. 9, 2020 -- Chinese state-run media reports novel coronavirus detected in patient.
Jan. 15 -- Japan confirms 1st coronavirus infection.
Jan. 30 -- World Health Organization declares global emergency.
Feb. 3 -- Quarantine starts on cruise ship Diamond Princess, which arrived at Yokohama Port, group infection later confirmed among passengers, crew members.
Feb. 13 -- Japan confirms its 1st coronavirus death.
March 4 -- Domestic infections top 1,000, including those on Diamond Princess cruise ship.
March 11 -- WHO declares novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
March 13 -- Japan's parliament enacts legislation enabling the government to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus.
March 24 -- 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games postponed to 2021 due to pandemic.
April 5 -- Deaths from COVID-19 in Japan top 100.
April 7 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declares state of emergency for Tokyo, six other prefectures.
April 16 -- State of emergency expanded to entire nation, infected people in Japan top 10,000.
May 2 -- Deaths in Japan top 500.
May 25 -- State of emergency fully lifted.
July 22 -- Japan's domestic travel subsidy campaign begins, excluding Tokyo, to help revive tourism industry battered by coronavirus.
Sept. 19 -- Japan eases restrictions on crowd size at professional sports matches, movie theaters and other events.
Oct. 1 -- Tokyo added to travel subsidy campaign.
Oct. 29 -- Domestic infection cases top 100,000.
Nov. 22 -- Coronavirus deaths in Japan top 2,000.
Dec. 14 -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announces halt of travel subsidy program during the New Year holidays.
Dec. 21 -- Domestic infections top 200,000.
Dec. 22 -- Coronavirus deaths in Japan top 3,000.
Jan. 7, 2021 -- Suga declares second state of emergency for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures effective the following day through Feb. 7.
Jan. 13 -- Suga declares state of emergency for seven more prefectures including Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka and Tochigi. Domestic infections top 300,000.
Feb. 2 -- State of emergency extended to March 7 in 10 prefectures.
Feb. 8 -- State of emergency lifted in Tochigi.
March 1 -- Emergency lifted in six prefectures, including Osaka, ahead of planned end on March 7.
March 22 -- Emergency lifted in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures.
April 23 -- Suga declares third state of emergency in Tokyo and three western prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo effective April 25 through May 11. Quasi-emergency measures implemented in Ehime prefecture.
April 26 -- COVID-19 deaths top 10,000.
May 2 -- Domestic infections top 600,000.
May 7 -- State of emergency extended to May 31.
May 9 -- Quasi-emergency measures implemented in Hokkaido and central prefectures of Gifu and Mie.
May 12 -- Suga declares state of emergency for Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures.
May 14 -- Suga declares state of emergency for Hokkaido and 2 western prefectures of Okayama and Hiroshima. Quasi-emergency measures implemented in Gunma, Ishikawa and Kumamoto prefectures.