The Japanese government decided Friday to expand the COVID-19 state of emergency beyond Tokyo and the Osaka region and extend it to May 31 in an effort to bring down infections and ease the strain on hospitals.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga formalized at a task force meeting the decision to continue restrictions on dining establishments and other businesses past the original end date on Tuesday and to add Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures from Wednesday.
But the government will ease some measures including those on department stores and movie theaters to mitigate the damage to the world's third-largest economy.
The third state of emergency during the pandemic has been in place in Tokyo, which is set to host the Summer Olympics in less than three months, as well as Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures since April 25, with targeted steps aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus during the Golden Week holidays.
Restaurants and bars will continue to be prohibited from serving alcohol or offering karaoke services and must close by 8 p.m. with a fine of up to 300,000 yen ($2,750) for noncompliance. Businesses will continue to be encouraged to have employees work from home.
Under the new plan, however, large commercial facilities such as department stores and movie theaters will be allowed to reopen with shorter hours, while a ban on spectators at large events such as sports games will be replaced with a cap of 5,000 people or 50 percent of the venue's capacity.
In addition, the government plans to secure by mid-May enough coronavirus antigen testing kits to carry out up to 8 million tests and distribute them to medical and elderly care facilities.
It will also strengthen restrictions on Japanese nationals and foreign residents in the country arriving from India, where more contagious coronavirus variants have been raging, and urge people to refrain from drinking alcohol on streets or in parks in groups.
"We have a strong sense of crisis," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government's coronavirus response, said at a meeting with experts in infectious disease and other fields. "We will thoroughly curb infections and make sure the number of newly infected declines so that people feel safe."
Suga has stressed that the state of emergency, the third since the start of the pandemic, has been successful in reducing the number of people out and about.
But a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare panel warned Thursday infections have continued to increase nationwide, in part due to highly contagious variants of the coronavirus.
Japan has 1,131 COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms, the health ministry said Friday, hitting an all-time high and stoking fears of further strains on health care systems.
The number of such patients had eclipsed 1,000 in late January and again topped the threshold last Saturday, according to the ministry.
The country saw a total of 4,375 new infections on Thursday. While that is down 27 percent from the height of the fourth wave last Saturday, health minister Norihisa Tamura said the decline is attributable to hospitals testing less during the holidays.
Osaka and Hyogo, in particular, have struggled to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, with several reports of people dying at home while waiting to be admitted.
Meanwhile, Japan's vaccine rollout has lagged behind other countries, including Israel, Britain and the United States, and public dissatisfaction with its coronavirus response could add pressure on Suga ahead of a general election later this year.
The government on Friday also extended a quasi-state of emergency covering Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ehime and Okinawa prefectures to the end of May and added Hokkaido, Gifu and Mie. Miyagi, which has seen a fall in coronavirus cases, will be removed.
Restrictions under the designation, introduced in a legal revision in February, are not as strict as a full-fledged emergency, with requests for restaurants and bars to close early limited to specific areas and smaller fines for noncompliance.