TOKYO - The Japanese government stepped up preparations Thursday to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo as well as Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, with tougher restrictions such as the closure of department stores and shopping malls expected to be in place through the Golden Week holidays.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to finalize the decision at a task force meeting on Friday, as a resurgence of infections puts pressure on the medical system with just 3 months until the Tokyo Olympics kick off.
The state of emergency is expected to be in effect for about 3 weeks through mid-May, with one government official saying it is crucial to stop people from moving around during the upcoming holidays, usually one of the busiest times of the year for travel.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura called on the government not to waste any time, saying the measure should begin this weekend. Osaka, the current epicenter of coronavirus cases in the country, reported a record 1,242 new infections on Wednesday.
The government will examine the situation, including the availability of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, and will make a decision after determining the necessary restrictions as well as the appropriate time period and area, its top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, told a press conference.
Tokyo and Osaka plan to ask major commercial facilities such as department stores, shopping malls and amusement parks to temporarily close. Yoshimura has also said he will ask restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol and close on weekends, a step further than his current request for eateries to close by 8 p.m.
The government could make exceptions for certain facilities in order to soften the blow to the economy, which is already reeling from COVID-19 restrictions and the loss of foreign tourists due to the pandemic, people familiar with the matter said.
Infections have been back on the rise across the country despite a quasi-state of emergency covering 10 prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka. The daily nationwide total topped 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time in 3 months, with Tokyo logging 843 and Hyogo seeing a record 563.
Health experts have warned of the spread of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus, with a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare panel estimating they account for about 80 percent of all cases in Osaka and Hyogo, and a rapidly growing share in Tokyo.
Suga has said the declaration of the country's third state of emergency, following those in April last year and January, will not affect the staging of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, reiterating the government will continue efforts to ensure they are "safe and secure."
But public skepticism remains high, with 39.2 percent of respondents in a Kyodo News poll this month saying the games should be canceled and 32.8 percent saying they should be rescheduled.