TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Monday that the state of emergency declared over the novel coronavirus crisis is over in Japan, ending curbs on economic activity in Tokyo and four other prefectures as experts judged the spread of infections is now under control.
Speaking at a press conference, Abe said the state of emergency that has been in place since April for the Tokyo metropolitan area including Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, along with Hokkaido in northern Japan, is ending ahead of schedule.
With the removal of the restrictions imposed under the state of emergency, the recession-hit Japanese economy is expected to regain vigor, albeit at a gradual pace. The five prefectures account for about a third of the country's gross domestic product.
"I have decided to end the state of emergency across the nation," Abe told a press conference. "In just over a month and a half, we almost brought (the infection) situation under control."
An advisory panel gave the go-ahead to the government plan to end the emergency earlier in the day after examining the number of newly reported cases over the past week, the availability of medical resources, and the capacity to provide virus tests and monitor the spread of the virus.
Abe has been weighing the need to keep new infections firmly under control against the urgent need to rejuvenate the economy.
Abe is calling for Japanese people to alter their lifestyles by wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing and working from home as medical experts warn against relaxing vigilance too soon amid the risk of another wave of infections.
While the infection situation has stabilized, Abe's political capital has apparently waned as the prime minister has come under fire for his crisis response that critics say is insufficient and out of touch with the public. Adding to his woes, a top prosecutor resigned last week for gambling on mahjong during the state of emergency.
At a meeting of the advisory panel on Monday, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said the government will establish a transitional period and assess the infection situation every three weeks, meaning requests for people to stay at home and avoid large gatherings may be eased only gradually.
People will be asked to refrain from crossing prefectural borders until the end of May, according to Nishimura, who is in charge of the virus emergency response.
One benchmark used by the government and experts is whether new infections have fallen below 0.5 per 100,000 people in the past week and all but two prefectures -- Kanagawa and Hokkaido -- have cleared that threshold.
Japanese government officials say the 0.5 benchmark is not the only determinant, adding whether existing cases' transmission routes are traceable is also important, among other factors.
The Tokyo metropolitan area has been hit hardest by the coronavirus in Japan, with the nation's capital of around 14 million people reporting more than 5,100 cases, the largest among the 47 prefectures. Tokyo confirmed eight new cases on Monday.
The state of emergency gave prefectural governors legal authority to request people to forgo nonessential outings and businesses to suspend their operations, even though Japan cannot legally enforce a hard lockdown similar to those implemented in Europe and the United States.
Japan is lifting the coronavirus emergency declaration roughly seven weeks after it was enforced in Tokyo, Osaka and five other urban areas on April 7.
Abe expanded the measure to all 47 prefectures in mid-April ahead of the Golden Week holidays from late April to early May to encourage people to cancel their travel plans.
Earlier in the month, Abe extended the state of emergency until May 31, but on May 14 he exempted 39 prefectures where the spread of the virus had been brought under control, followed by Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in western Japan last Thursday.
Governors of areas that have largely dealt with the virus emergency have relaxed such requests on the public and businesses.
The governors of the Tokyo area, meanwhile, had asked the central government to treat the four prefectures -- Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama -- collectively in any decision to lift the emergency declaration due to their geographic proximity and interlinked economies.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has unveiled a three-stage plan to relax restrictions imposed over the coronavirus, allowing restaurants and eateries to stay open longer and schools to gradually resume classes.
In the first phase, which will likely begin Tuesday, museums and libraries will open while restaurants and eateries will be allowed to stay open until 10 p.m., later than 8 p.m. as permitted under the emergency declaration.
The second phase may begin by the end of the month, metropolitan government sources said, enabling more facilities such as movie theaters and shops selling products other than daily necessities to reopen.
However, karaoke parlors, live music venues and gyms -- places where the risk of group transmission is high -- will be asked to remain closed.
Japan has so far avoided an explosive surge of virus infections with over 17,200 cases and 853 deaths reported across the nation, but infectious disease experts have been calling on the public to remain alert for a second wave as restrictions are lifted.
The tally includes about 700 infections from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined off Yokohama in February.