Coronavirus restrictions on eateries were lifted in the Tokyo area and Osaka on Monday despite concerns over a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, as well as Osaka, eliminated curbs on the serving of alcohol and the operating hours that had been introduced to keep coronavirus infections from spreading. The easing of curbs came as infections nationwide continue to be on a downtrend.
For the capital and Osaka, it is the first lifting of such countermeasures against COVID-19 in 11 months. Tokyo reported 17 daily cases Monday, the second consecutive day that cases fell below 20 since June 17 last year.
The latest seven-day average of new infections stood at 29.6 per day, down 48.6 percent from the previous week, according to the metropolitan government.
Osaka also reported its fewest daily COVID-19 infections for this year with 26 cases.
Nationwide coronavirus cases on Monday dropped to 153 compared with over 25,000 reported in mid-August in the fifth wave of infections.
The rate of people who received coronavirus vaccinations continues to climb although the pace has slowed from its peak.
A government tally showed Monday that 69.6 percent of the entire population has been fully vaccinated, with the rate rising to 90.3 percent among people aged 65 and older.
The government is planning to begin offering third vaccine shots by the end of this year.
A government experiment using proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative virus test results was conducted Monday at eateries in Osaka city's Minami district, with customers showing their proof being allowed to sit in groups of five or more per table.
"We hope the din and bustle of the district will return along with the proper implementation of antivirus measures," said 60-year-old Katsuya Ueyama, president of the operator of the Kushikatsu Daruma restaurant chain.
Some 102,000 eateries in Tokyo have been certified as having taken the necessary coronavirus measures and are no longer subject to a request to stop serving alcohol by 8 p.m. Around 18,000 noncertified dining establishments will remain under the old restrictions and must stop serving by 9 p.m.
"I am grateful that we can work normally now," said a 40-year-old female member of staff at a bar in Tokyo's Kabukicho nightlife district.
In the western prefecture of Osaka, a senior staff member at a Japanese-style "izakaya" pub said he had long awaited the removal of COVID-19 restrictions.
"I want customers to come and drink more often," the 70-year-old said.
Still, restaurant and bar operators are worried whether customers will return as they used to before the pandemic, given the concerns that the lifting of such restrictions may cause another surge of infections.
"Some people may still be worried (about infections), I'm not sure if customers will really return to drink," said Takashi Shibuya, a 43-year-old manager at a pub in Asakusa, a popular destination in Tokyo for tourists.
A 55-year-old taxi driver in Osaka said he will probably dine out with his family but will refrain from going out for drinks, which could raise the risk of becoming infected.
According to a set of proposals submitted by a government subcommittee on coronavirus response made up of health experts last year, people under the influence of alcohol tend to have lower attentiveness and auditory sense, which may lead to a situation where people talk loudly in confined spaces.
People who were eating and drinking around the bustling JR Shimbashi Station in the capital welcomed the easing of COVID-19 measures but some voiced concerns over the resurgence risk of the infections.
"I'm scared of another state of emergency. I am booked with plans to go out to drink in a small group but I'd still avoid large gatherings," said Koichi Yoshida, a 63-year-old resident of Tokyo's Adachi Ward.
The government aims to increase hospitals' capacity of accepting coronavirus inpatients by 20 percent from the time of a fifth wave of infections.
A Kyodo News tally based on health ministry data indicated hospitals across the country must be ready to accept a total of some 34,000 patients if a sixth wave hits. If the current conditions remain unchanged, there will be a shortage of hospital beds in 16 prefectures including Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Osaka.
Prefectural governments are expected to review their plans by late November as they need to secure enough health care professionals, among others, to increase the bed capacity.