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People wearing face masks to protest against the coronavirus walk at an underpass in Tokyo, Tuesday. (AP)
People wearing face masks to protest against the coronavirus walk at an underpass in Tokyo, Tuesday. (AP)

Japan to expand virus emergency to include over half its economy

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will announce the expansion of the emergency area to seven additional prefectures later on Wednesday, according to media reports

Japan is set to expand the area under the coronavirus state of emergency beyond the Tokyo region, encompassing the country’s three largest economic hubs as a surge in virus cases continues to grow.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will announce the expansion of the emergency area to seven additional prefectures later on Wednesday, according to media reports. He is set to speak at a press conference at 7 p.m. Together with Tokyo and three nearby prefectures that came under a state of emergency less than a week ago, the areas will represent more than half the nation’s economy.

The prefectures set to be included are the business hub of Osaka and its neighbors Kyoto and Hyogo; industrial heartland Aichi and bordering Gifu; Fukuoka, home to the largest city in the southern island of Kyushu; and Tochigi, located north of Tokyo. The areas covered by the emergency would account for about 60% of the economy’s total output, according to government data.

Although the emergency is intended to send a strong message in a country that can’t legally enforce the type of lockdowns seen in other nations, in the Tokyo region it has yet to have the same level of impact on people’s behavior seen during the first such declaration last spring.

“The number of people moving about has not gone down," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s virus response, wrote on Twitter Monday evening, the last day of a long weekend in the country. “Please refrain from going out not just during the night, but at daytime also."

While the number of people moving through business and shopping districts in central Tokyo since the emergency was declared was down considerably from a typical year, the decline this time is much less than that seen in April during the first state of emergency, according to an analysis of GPS data provided by Agoop.

Tokyo reported cases under 1,000 for the first time in more than a week on Tuesday, with 970 new infections, although testing and reporting are likely to have been impacted by the long weekend. Serious cases in the capital, defined as those on a ventilator or ECMO machine, jumped to a record 144, with 250 beds allocated to such cases.

The surge is already weighing on sentiment. The mood among main street merchants and other consumer-facing businesses like store owners and taxi drivers slid in December to the lowest since May, a government survey showed Tuesday. The Bank of Japan is also considering cutting its growth forecast for the fiscal year ending March when it meets next week, the Nikkei reported, with consumption impacted by the virus resurgence.

Critics have questioned if the second state of emergency is sweeping enough to contain the spread of the virus. While authorities have called for lighter restrictions than last year to limit the economic damage, the measures risk sending mixed messages to a public that is struggling with pandemic fatigue. Department stores, cinemas and gyms remain open, while bars and restaurants have only been asked to close after 8 p.m.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura addressed the issue on Tuesday. “Of course it’s not OK for people to drink and get rowdy during the daytime," Tamura said at a regular briefing. “We want to people to use their common sense."

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