Japan to expand COVID-19 state of emergency to 3 more prefectures

Japanese economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura explains in Tokyo on May 14, 2021, about the government's decision to add Hokkaido, Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures to the ongoing coronavirus state of emergency from May 16. (Kyodo)

The Japanese government is set Friday to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency in three more prefectures, a surprise move that comes as infections continue to surge ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima will come under tougher restrictions from Sunday to May 31, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of coronavirus response.

The government had initially planned to place Okayama and Hiroshima under a quasi-state of emergency, already in effect in Hokkaido, but a panel of experts urged stronger steps.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is slated to formalize the decision at a task force meeting in the evening before holding a press conference.

Six prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka are already under a state of emergency, with restaurants being told to refrain from serving alcohol and to close by 8 p.m. Department stores and other major commercial facilities are also being told to either temporarily shut or close early, and attendance at concerts and sports games have been capped at 5,000.

Coronavirus cases have been on the rise nationwide in recent weeks, with the daily number of new infections topping 6,000 for the third straight day on Thursday and reports surfacing of COVID-19 patients dying at home as hospitals struggle to free up beds.

The spread of highly contagious variants of the virus and a sluggish vaccine rollout have exacerbated the situation.

Japan has the worst vaccination rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, having administered at least one shot to just 3 percent of its population of 126 million.

“It will be difficult to improve the situation unless we take the strongest measures possible,” said Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member at the Japan Medical Association who sits on the expert panel.

The government is also set to expand the quasi-state of emergency to three other prefectures — Gunma, Ishikawa and Kumamoto.

Eight prefectures — Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Gifu, Mie, Ehime and Okinawa — are currently under the quasi-state of emergency, while Tokyo, Aichi, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka are under a full-fledged emergency.

The former allows governors to single out municipalities with measures including telling restaurants to close early with a fine of up to 200,000 yen ($1,825) for noncompliance, while the latter covers entire prefectures with tougher restrictions and larger fines.