Japan leans on governors to prevent post-emergency COVID-19 rebound

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Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency will expire Thursday but, unlike in the past, quasi-emergency measures will not be used to fend off a rebound in coronavirus cases.

Instead, steps similar to quasi-emergency measures will be executed by prefectural governors, who have been given the task of rolling back restrictions while maintaining certain precautions.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Tuesday evening that the country’s state of emergency and quasi-emergency measures — currently active in 19 and eight prefectures, respectively — will all be lifted Thursday as originally planned.

“Cases and severely ill patients have declined dramatically nationwide, and the burden on the health care system has greatly eased,” Suga told Diet members earlier in the day.

The central government’s decision to rely on governors in lieu of quasi-emergency measures raised questions from experts and lawmakers, but experts advising the government say a prefecture-led approach may be the best way to prevent a rebound.

The issue was the main topic of discussion during a meeting Tuesday between Cabinet officials and the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee, according to subcommittee chair Shigeru Omi.

The Ameyoko shopping district in Tokyo in June | REUTERS
The Ameyoko shopping district in Tokyo in June | REUTERS

Asked why the country is choosing not to implement quasi-emergency measures, Omi said none of the prefectures had requested them.

“There are, of course, reasons to believe its too early to lift the state of emergency, but (the subcommittee) collectively agreed that the situation has improved to the point where it can be lifted as long as steps are taken to maintain precautionary measures, and it’s made clear to the public that the virus will return if we let our guards down,” he told reporters after the meeting.

After measures are lifted, restaurants, bars and other dining establishments — many of which have been asked to close by 8 p.m. and suspend alcohol sales in most parts of the country — will be allowed to stay open until 9 p.m. if they can demonstrate their adherence to basic coronavirus measures.

The sale of alcohol will be allowed but decisions on that will be made by governors for their respective prefectures, according to Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s pandemic response.

The central government will provide financial support to dining establishments that comply with these measures, he said.

As has been the case with most of the country’s COVID-19 countermeasures, restrictions on travel, dining and public events will be almost entirely voluntary, in the same way they were when a state of emergency or quasi-emergency measures was not active previously.

 

The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Thursday | AFP-JIJI
The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Thursday | AFP-JIJI

After Thursday, it will be the first time since early April that no part of the country is under a state of emergency or quasi-emergency measures.

In addition to restrictions on dining establishments, governors will oversee restrictions on travel and public events for the month after the state of emergency or quasi-emergency measures are lifted.

For large events, attendance limits will be raised to 10,000 people or 50% of venue capacity from the current 5,000 people.

Last winter, just months before the delta variant emerged, a wave of COVID-19 spread through households as families, friends and loved ones huddled in the warmth of their homes to escape the cold.

Experts and public officials are afraid of a repeat.

“If people become suddenly active and start going out after these measures are lifted, the virus will rebound,” Nishimura said Tuesday morning. “It’s crucial that restrictions are peeled back gradually, and for the public to understand and respect that.”

 

The Shibuya scramble crossing in September | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
The Shibuya scramble crossing in September | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

As the central government looks to begin the trial phase of the pandemic exit strategy it announced earlier this month, Nishimura said that attendance restrictions at certain baseball and soccer matches will be eased for people who have been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19.

The exit strategy will ease restrictions on travel, dining and public events exclusively for people who have been fully vaccinated or those who can prove they’re not infected with the coronavirus.

Amid mounting evidence of the waning efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, the central government announced last week that it will begin administering booster shots to medical personnel by year-end, and to older people in the new year.

The fifth wave, which appeared to peak on Aug. 20 when the country reported more than 25,000 cases, seems to be petering out.

On Monday, the country reported fewer than 1,200 cases. The number of COVID-19 patients suffering severe symptoms, which saw a delayed uptick weeks after the spike in daily infections, is declining as well.

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