Teachers, students, medical experts and other citizens voiced anxieties Friday over the downgrading of COVID-19's legal status this spring, fearing that the action will remove anti-infection measures that have become an entrenched part of daily lives and heighten infection risks.

Restaurants, shop operators, travel agencies and airlines welcomed the new classification of the coronavirus or called it overdue, after their revenues fell sharply under three years of coronavirus restrictions, including requests for people to stay indoors or on businesses to shorten opening hours.

Medical workers deal with coronavirus patients at Yokosuka Kyosai Hospital in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in December 2022. (Photo courtesy of Yokosuka Kyosai Hospital) (Kyodo)

"I am afraid we may no longer be able to protect the safety of children," said a school teacher, while university student Saki Ono, 23, said, "If quarantine no longer becomes a requirement for infected people, I am afraid there is a risk of those around being infected."

The downgrade of COVID-19 from "equivalent to Class 2" to a Class 5 disease, the same level as seasonal influenza, will scale back on extensive measures currently in place, such as limitations on the movements of infected people and their close contacts.

More visually, the government is set to review current rules on the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At present, the government recommends wearing of masks indoors, in principle, while not asking to do so outdoors. But in Japan, almost all people wear them regardless of indoors or outdoors.

At schools, students still sit in classes wearing masks as the education ministry's manual says that they should wear them when adequate physical distancing is not secured.

"Whether because anti-infection measures have become prevalent or because they feel embarrassed, many pupils would put on masks unless they are told not to," a principal at a public elementary school in Tokyo said.

A teacher in his 50s at a public elementary school in Osaka Prefecture in western Japan said many of his fellow teachers are doubtful of the government's policy to review the categorization of COVID-19 as the number of coronavirus infections remains high.

As there are still students developing a fever, he said, the "government should make a decision when the infection status calms down."

Among the public, Mio Sato, a 36-year-old company employee in Fukuoka, a city in southwestern Japan, said, "I want to continue to wear masks as I feel at risk of infection."

A part-time worker in her 60s in Fukuoka Prefecture also said, "Infection risks remain as there are people who have yet to be vaccinated."

Some health experts also questioned the government's move to downgrade the status of COVID-19, given the current status of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is too hasty to judge that the coronavirus pandemic is coming to an end by looking at the current numbers. There are likely cases of underreporting and people who refrained from going to the doctor (though they had COVID-19 symptoms)," said Yoshikazu Nakamura, a professor specializing in public health at Jichi Medical University.

Some working in the eatery industry who saw the declassification decision as coming too late voiced anger at the government, while others including department store operators, travel agencies and airlines welcomed it as positive for their businesses.

"It lags behind foreign countries by several rounds and I cannot even welcome it," said an official at a major restaurant chain, adding that any prospects for recovery in revenues, which had been hit by requests for shorter business hours and ban on providing alcohol, remain unclear.

"I want to welcome it but honestly speaking, I feel that the government could have downgraded it way before," said Masahiko Yamashina, head of a skewered chicken restaurant in Tokyo's Shimbashi district.

"I do not think the situation will return to that before the coronavirus pandemic" with new lifestyles such as remote working widely adopted in Japan, Yamashina said.

Another restaurant chain worker, meanwhile, said, "It would be positive for business if quarantine requirements for patients and people in close contacts with an infected person are relaxed."

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