Three Japanese prefectures hosting or neighboring U.S. military bases continued to see high coronavirus cases Sunday as COVID-19 quasi-emergency measures took effect in response to surging infections that their governors say stem from the spread of the Omicron variant at the U.S. facilities.
After reporting 1,759 new cases on Saturday, the third straight day of record daily figures, the southern island prefecture of Okinawa confirmed 1,533 cases Sunday while Hiroshima in western Japan saw 619 cases, renewing its record high for the third consecutive day.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan has, for the most part, agreed with the United States to place a curfew on U.S. military personnel while vowing to step up efforts such as increasing the pace of booster shots to minimize the impact of another wave of infections.
The government later said the two countries agreed to limit U.S. personnel's activities in Japan outside their bases to essential ones for two weeks from Monday.
The quasi-state of emergency will be in effect until Jan. 31 in Okinawa and parts of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, allowing the prefectural governments to strengthen their anti-coronavirus steps and request that dining establishments shorten their business hours and stop serving alcohol.
Yamaguchi, which hosts a U.S. Marines air base in Iwakuni, saw 152 new cases on Sunday, of which 80 were reported in Iwakuni. The western prefecture has seen its daily cases surge to an all-time high of 181 on Thursday.
The emergency, the first under Kishida, who took office in October, was declared as medical experts warn of the sixth wave of infections in the country and a renewed strain on the medical system.
Following a cluster of infections at the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Hansen in Okinawa and a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases at a different base in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi, which is adjacent to Hiroshima, local officials and health experts now believe the outbreaks have spilled into nearby areas and beyond.
All of Okinawa Prefecture is under quasi-emergency, while only certain municipalities are subject to it in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima.
"As a result of discussions with the U.S. side, we have reached a broad agreement not to allow unnecessary outings" by U.S. service personnel, Kishida said on an NHK television program. "We are now working out details."
But he turned down Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki's request to overhaul the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, a hosting deal under which U.S. military personnel and related people are exempt from Japanese quarantine rules.
The governor of Okinawa, where the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan is stationed, has blamed their personnel for spreading the variant to local communities, given that they were not required until recently to have PCR tests before departure from the United States or wear masks after arrival in Japan.
The U.S. military in Okinawa confirmed a record 429 cases on Sunday, according to the prefectural government.
Meanwhile, the prime minister said he will consider introducing tougher restrictions in some areas in Japan if the spread of Omicron seriously overwhelms hospitals.
He separately said during a Fuji TV program that the government will decide whether to continue with the current strict border controls after the three-day weekend ends Monday.
With the emergence of the new variant, Japan tightened border controls in late November, banning the entry of all nonresident foreign nationals. It has also toughened quarantine measures for Japanese citizens and foreign residents who have recently been to certain countries or regions.
Under the quasi-state of emergency, the three prefectures request dining establishments in areas subject to the restrictions to shorten business hours and limit group dining to up to four people.
Yamaguchi and Hiroshima are also asking establishments to stop serving alcohol, while Okinawa allows restaurants and bars certified as taking sufficient anti-virus measures to serve alcohol until 8 p.m.
Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka told reporters Saturday his government may have to consider tougher measures if the situation continues to worsen in the prefecture.
Community transmission of the Omicron variant has also been confirmed in bigger Japanese cities, including Tokyo and Osaka. The nationwide tally of COVID-19 infections hit a four-month high of more than 8,400 on Saturday. However, cases slightly declined to just over 8,000 on Sunday.
On Sunday, Tokyo reported 1,223 cases after its daily count on the previous day grew 15-fold from a week ago to 1,224.