TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s expanded state of emergency went into effect Thursday as the government seeks to stop a surge of new coronavirus infections, though with the restrictions not binding many people appeared to be ignoring the requests to avoid nonessential travel.
People were still commuting on crowded trains and buses in Osaka, Fukuoka and other areas of the seven new prefectures placed under the state of emergency. In Tokyo, where the emergency decree has already been in place for a week, the governor expressed concern about people not following the official guidance.
“I thank for your cooperation, but the number of people up and about in town has not been significantly reduced,” Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters.
She said the state of emergency is not just about avoiding eating out at night or for restaurants to close early, but to reduce contacts among people.
“The virus has no calendar, clock or even a map. Day or night, or prefectural borders doesn’t matter,” she said. “Please avoid going out for nonessential purposes.”
Under the state of emergency that now covers areas home to more than half of Japan’s population, bars and restaurants have been asked to close by 8 p.m., employers have been asked to have 70% of their staff work from home and residents in the affected areas have been asked to avoid going out for nonessential purposes. Reduced capacity has also been requested for sports and other events.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government has said the measures are needed to prevent an increase in infections in urban areas from spilling over to smaller towns where medical systems are vulnerable. Suga has called the situation “severe” and asked the people to cooperate, though in Japan the requests are nonbinding and those who ignore them are not punished.
The Tokyo governor urged the country’s main business organization to encourage employers to do more to promote remote work and reduce commuting as requested by the government.
Japan has seen coronavirus infections and deaths roughly double over the past month to about 302,000 and 4,200 respectively. Tokyo alone reported 1,502 new cases on Thursday.
Yet despite the surge, Japan has reported far fewer infections than many countries of its size.
Experts say people are not responsive to the emergency measures due to growing complacency.
Suga has said he will seek the revision of a law to allow his government to issue binding measures with penalties for violators.
The Cabinet minister in charge of the coronavirus measures, Yasutoshi Nishimura, told a special parliamentary panel Thursday that further expansion of the emergency is possible if infections spread.
The emergency decree now covers Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organization regional director who heads a government COVID-19 taskforce, said tougher measures such as business shutdown requests may be needed if the measures are ineffective by early February. He has previously said a month-long emergency may not be enough to slow the surge.
Suga has been criticized for not taking stronger action earlier in the outbreak, when measures were largely limited to asking the public to take basic safety measures such as wearing masks and washing hands.
Experts have said the surge in infections is putting pressure on hospitals in the country, especially in Tokyo, which has seen about a quarter of the country’s virus cases. At least two people in Tokyo have died while waiting to be hospitalized after testing positive for the virus.
To relieve manage the burden, Tokyo is working to secure hotel rooms for less-serious patients, while assigning three prefectural-run hospitals to specialize in coronavirus treatment, the governor said.
“The infections are showing signs of becoming explosive. We must slow the pace as soon as possible,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center and a member of Tokyo’s coronavirus taskforce.
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