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Japan gov't to beef up restrictions on events as it eyes another state of emergency

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is seen heading to a board meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at the party headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is set to reintroduce stricter restrictions on large-scale events as it looks to decide on a plan on Jan. 7 to issue another state of emergency for the greater Tokyo area amid the surging number of coronavirus cases in Japan.

    Under the coming initiative, the government is considering lowering the cap of 5,000 people for a large-scale event to be held in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, which will potentially become subject to the state of emergency. It is also considering reimposing restrictions on the audience size at movie theaters and concerts, where up to 100% of capacity is currently allowed to be filled.

    After the government entirely lifted the state of emergency in May last year, it relaxed the cap in stages on the number of people allowed at events held in indoor facilities to up to 50% of capacity. It also gradually eased restrictions for events at outdoor facilities on condition that people are allowed to keep enough distance from each other. The maximum number of people allowed for an event had initially been set at 100 for indoor facilities and 200 for outdoor facilities, but both figures were raised to 1,000 in June and then to 5,000 in July. Eventually, the 5,000-cap was removed in September as coronavirus infections had somewhat settled, making it possible for pro baseball games and other events to host 10,000-plus spectators.

    However, due to the subsequent resurgence of coronavirus cases across the country, the maximum limit was pulled back to 5,000 from late December last year. "We are even discussing whether to further lower the cap to 1,000 or 2,000," said an individual close to the government. Even if the new restrictions are introduced, the government will not ask for cancellations of events for which tickets have already been sold, but plans to make tickets to go on sale subject to the new rule.

    With regard to another state of emergency, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a board meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Jan. 5, "I'm hoping that a direction will be set after putting the matter before the basic response policy advisory committee (of experts) on Jan. 7." If the committee decides that the current situation deserves another state of emergency, the government's task force will formally decide on the issuance of another declaration after providing prior explanation to the committees of Rules and Administration of both chambers of the Diet on the same day. Once issued, the new state of emergency is likely to take effect on the night of Jan. 7 or on Jan. 8, when the matter will be publicized through the government gazette.

    Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government's coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, announced its proposals at a press conference held on the evening of Jan. 5. He explained that the infection status in Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures had reached "Stage 4 (explosion of infections)," the worst of the four-point scale of severity, and that it was about time to issue another state of emergency. While the government envisages the coming state of emergency will last for around one month, Omi was skeptical about this and said, "It would be almost impossible (to improve the infection status) in a month." It is likely that the state of emergency will be extended if infections do not subside.

    Once the state of emergency is reissued, the governors of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama will start requesting people to refrain from making nonessential and nonurgent outings after 8 p.m. from Jan. 8, as well as asking eateries and karaoke bars to close by 8 p.m. The governors have already agreed on this policy. The four prefectures, meanwhile, plan not to request school closures, nor will ask cinemas, museums and other facilities to temporarily shut down.

    In regard to border controls, the government has informally decided to ban new entry of foreigners in principle for about a month in conjunction with the issuance of another state of emergency. While short and long stays are currently allowed for business associates from China, South Korea and nine other countries and regions, they will be temporarily banned under the new state of emergency. Meanwhile, the government is looking into continuing to allow re-entry of foreigners holding residency status in Japan, just like Japanese nationals returning from overseas.

    The government on Dec. 28 banned new entry of foreigners from all countries and regions due to reasons including the spread of the new, more transmissible coronavirus variant. However, business traffic aimed at restoring the economy by relaxing border controls with some countries and regions -- including China, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan -- is still permitted as an exception, sparking criticism even within the LDP and other parties.

    At a press conference on Jan. 4, Prime Minister Suga said, "We will immediately ban entry in the event the coronavirus variant is detected among business traffic." However, under the new state of emergency, entry will basically be banned regardless of the discovery of the new variant.

    With regard to the government's "Go To Travel" domestic tourism subsidy program, which has been suspended nationwide until Jan. 11, the government is expected to keep the suspension beyond Jan. 12.

    (Japanese original by Hironori Takechi and Ryuko Tadokoro, Political News Department, and Hiroyuki Harada, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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