State of emergency declared in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday declared a second, albeit less comprehensive, state of emergency in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has stretched parts of the nation’s health care system to breaking point.

“I’m highly alarmed by the severe situation nationwide recently … as the number of patients has been extremely high,” Suga said at a government task force meeting, adding the Go To Travel domestic tourism program will be suspended while the state of emergency is in effect.

The restrictions will enter into force Friday and remain in place until at least Feb. 7. They will not be lifted until the affected prefectures see a significant reduction in benchmarks such as hospital occupancy rates and positivity rates.

One threshold would be daily cases declining to 500 per day in Tokyo, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister handling the government’s coronavirus response.

The prime minister was forced to play his last trump card — a situation his administration had desperately tried to avoid to ensure a swift economic recovery — after seeing new COVID-19 cases stubbornly refuse to go down and hospital beds rapidly fill up to as much as 88% in the capital. Tokyo logged 2,447 cases Thursday, shattering the daily record.

Under the second declaration, the relevant prefectural governors will ask people to stay at home after 8 p.m., while restaurants, pubs and cafes that serve alcoholic beverages are requested to serve them only from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and close by 8 p.m. The central government has squarely targeted eating and drinking venues, as it considers these establishments to be hotbeds of community transmission.

If the businesses refuse to comply, the prefectural governments can instruct them to close and disclose their names for essentially name-and-shame purposes — the toughest action available under the current legal framework. Those that follow the guidelines will be entitled to up to ¥60,000 in compensation per day. Nishimura said delivery and takeout establishments are exempt from the request.

The central government will also ask companies to reduce the number of workers going to the office by 70% and facilitate telecommuting and staggered commuting hours. Events will be restricted to half of their capacity and up to 5,000 attendees.

Facilities such as theaters, department stores and amusement parks can remain open but are encouraged to close their doors by 8 p.m. Schools, colleges and nurseries will similarly remain open but are requested to limit extracurricular activities.

Suga’s move stands in sharp contrast to the first, sweeping state of emergency declared last April under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which asked businesses across a broad range of industries to voluntarily close to decrease the movement of people by as much as 80%.

Suga had hoped cases would subside at the end of the last year and the beginning of this year, and affirmed in a news conference on Dec. 25 that a state of emergency was not required.

By reversing course, he found himself in the same position as in mid-December, when he was left with no choice but to temporarily suspend the Go To Travel campaign that he had defended, stirring up criticism from opposition lawmakers and health care workers that the action was too little, too late.

Dr. Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiology professor at Kyoto University, has projected an emergency declaration will take roughly two months to suppress daily cases in Tokyo to fewer than 100, even if tough measures similar to the first state of emergency are imposed.

“(The second state of emergency) is about restaurant businesses but it’s also about the public’s behavior,” one senior administration official said.

The government is working with the ruling coalition to introduce revisions in the upcoming ordinary Diet session to the special pandemic legislation, which will stipulate compensation for businesses that adhere to closure requests and penalties for those that disobey them.

Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, has declined to elaborate on the specifics of the revision, but said he is not aware of past legislation that includes penalties that apply retroactively.

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