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Sapporo entering new COVID-19 alert level as spike in cases threatens health care system

Workers check the lights for a display ahead of the annual Sapporo While Illumination event's scheduled Nov. 20 kickoff, on Nov. 16, 2020, in Sapporo's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

SAPPORO -- Hokkaido will raise its coronavirus alert level to stage 4 out of 5 for its capital city Sapporo while residents in the city will be encouraged not to go out unless necessary, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki and Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto announced on Nov. 16.

    The pair added that people should refrain from traveling in and out of Sapporo. The announcements came after Suzuki and Akimoto held emergency talks following a coronavirus case spike in the prefecture and its capital. More specific requests will be hammered out at a coronavirus countermeasures headquarters meeting set for Nov. 17.

    Hokkaido's stage 4 alert corresponds to the Japanese national government's stage 3, meaning infection numbers are increasing at a rapid pace. Under the alert level, not only are residents advised to stay at home, but they are encouraged to forgo or limit visits to shops or facilities that do not have anti-virus transmission measures in place. Events may also be restricted under the alert level.

    "If we do not halt the virus's spread in Sapporo, the socioeconomic heart of Hokkaido, then we risk infections reaching the entire prefecture," Gov. Suzuki stated. He added that the prefecture will strengthen its virus measures based on observations of the status of infections.

    Hokkaido raised its virus alert level to stage 3 on Nov. 7, and asked bars and restaurants in Sapporo's Susukino entertainment district to shorten their business hours. However, cluster infections continue to emerge at the city's medical institutions and nursing homes.

    Hokkaido registered 189 new cases on Nov. 16, marking the first time in five days for the count to dip below 200. However, it has registered 100 or more new cases for 12 days in a row, and there are no signs infections will decrease significantly any time soon. Furthermore, 19 people have died of COVID-19 in the prefecture in November alone, bringing total coronavirus deaths there to 129 as of Nov. 16.

    The Hokkaido Prefectural Government building. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

    "The medical system is under severe stress," Sapporo Mayor Akimoto told reporters. "There are so many new infections that we may not be able to secure (sufficient medical care) if we move to the next countermeasure phase after the (stage 4 warning) starts to produce results."

    Meanwhile, in reference to the central government's "Go To" travel and restaurant dining stimulus campaign, Gov. Suzuki commented, "We are seeing increasing numbers of cases stemming from people dining together." However, the governor did not call explicitly for limitations on the "Go To Travel" program. "There is no evidence that travel itself is spreading the infection," he said. "Of course, I'd like people to stay out of situations where infection risks cannot be avoided."

    The prefectural government's decision sent shockwaves through Hokkaido's tourism industry, which had been hoping for visitors to return to normal numbers as businesses were preparing for the winter travel season.

    "I can't believe the timing," said a representative of Sapporo Teine, a ski resort in the prefectural capital.

    The resort has implemented virus transmission countermeasures, such as banning people from different groups from boarding the same gondola ski lift, and plans to reopen on Nov. 21. However, officials are now nervous about how many people will actually turn up at all.

    "We can't expect customers from overseas this season to begin with (due to the pandemic and travel restrictions)," the resort representative told the Mainichi Shimbun. "We can only depend on domestic customers, and now this," they said with a sigh.

    The latest move by the prefectural government could affect the Sapporo Snow Festival -- the largest winter event in Hokkaido -- held every February at Odori Park in the heart of the city. Giant snow sculptures, the main feature of the event, have already been canceled for this winter's edition, and the organizing committee is now working out when and how long the major tourist draw can open, with a decision expected in December.

    A representative for the event told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It hasn't even been decided whether we are going to hold the festival. I can't comment on the matter."

    In contrast, the annual "Sapporo White Illumination" seasonal lighting event at Odori Park is moving ahead with its scheduled Nov. 20 start. However, organizers are uncertain if the display will be able to continue if infections spread significantly.

    "We've just started talking about transmission countermeasures with the Sapporo Municipal Government today, and absolutely nothing has been decided yet," an event representative said.

    (Japanese original by Yui Takahashi, Junichi Tsuchiya and Misa Kikuchi, Hokkaido News Department)

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