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Confusion, frustration erupts over Osaka area's new COVID-19 'quasi-emergency'

People crowd Osaka's Dotonbori area on the weekend before the start of a quasi-emergency in the city, on April 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Takao Kitamura)

OSAKA -- The quasi-emergency for Osaka Prefecture went into effect on April 5 amid surging new coronavirus cases, which hit an all-time daily high of 666 on April 3. Under the measures, eateries are subject to early closure requests or orders, and those that do not comply can be fined -- conditions virtually identical to a full state of emergency declaration.

    So, does the average person on the street in the areas covered by the quasi-emergency know the difference? And will they change their behavior while it's in effect?

    "The quasi-emergency is applied to municipalities, not prefectures, right? But other than that, I have no idea how it's different from the state of emergency declarations," said 53-year-old Shigeki Fujiwara, who was in Osaka's Minami nightlife district for a drink on the night of April 2.

    The city of Osaka is one of the places covered by the new coronavirus measures, and starting on April 5 restaurants and bars are being called on to close at 8 p.m. That is the same as under the second state of emergency which ran from January to March this year.

    Fujiwara added, "I guess case numbers will keep rising unless there's a lockdown like in some other countries. I bet the government is putting out these (quasi-emergency) measures because they want to have the Olympics."

    People crowd Osaka's Dotonbori area on the weekend before the start of a quasi-emergency in the city, on April 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Takao Kitamura)

    One 17-year-old high school girl on spring break from neighboring Kyoto Prefecture told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I don't feel any different. I'll probably go out to have fun anyway. I suppose the only change is that I'll check when shops are closing."

    Many locals in the four cities in neighboring Hyogo Prefecture covered by the quasi-emergency, including prefectural capital Kobe and Amagasaki, also said they did not understand the difference with a full emergency declaration. Restaurants and bars in the four cities have also been asked to close at 8 p.m.,

    "I think it's just a name change," said one 20-year-old university student. "I'll keep on curbing my activities, but I've got part-time jobs at more than one restaurant, so I'll probably lose income because of the shortened business hours," she continued with a worried expression.

    In Kobe, 41-year-old restaurateur Kazuya Hashimoto told the Mainichi, "Both the quasi-emergency and the emergency declarations sought to limit people's movements through making demands on shops, but it's hard for us to press first-time customers to be more careful. It's also important for the customers to act in the spirit of self-restraint."

    The quasi-emergency allows enhanced measures to be applied with a narrow geographical focus on municipalities, and are intended to bring infections under control before issuing a prefecture-wide emergency declaration. The status was introduced under revisions to Japan's influenza and communicable disease special measures law passed in February this year. Under the law, shortened business hour requests and orders can be issued under both quasi- and full states of emergency, and fines levied against violators. However, unlike a full emergency declaration, the government cannot demand a business close temporarily under the quasi-emergency.

    The second state of emergency declaration was lifted early in Osaka Prefecture, in late February, at the request of prefectural authorities. Now, just over a month later, the city of Osaka is going under the quasi-emergency -- a development that has sparked some discontent.

    "Infections decrease when there's an emergency declaration, and then go up again when it's lifted," said a 29-year-old Osaka woman. "Either way, there ends up being more cases, so it seems to me that they (emergency measures) just don't work."

    Minami district restaurant owner Yuki Imai, 42, commented, "The coronavirus crisis has been going on for a year now, but the authorities just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Rather than restricting our business hours, it would be more helpful economically if they reduced restaurants' capacity to 30-50% or something like that. I want them to think up a smart way to do things."

    Some welcomed the quasi-emergency, however. One 56-year-old man near JR Osaka Station told the Mainichi on April 3, "I feel that people have become lax (about the virus), so I agree with the new measures. They work as countermeasures against people crowding." As did a 28-year-old doctor at an Osaka Prefecture hospital, who said, "Full emergency declarations have a serious impact on the economy. It's better to do this to concentrate people's attention than to do nothing at all."

    During an April 3 appearance on a television morning show, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said that there were no issues with his pandemic response, including his request to have the second emergency declaration lifted early for the prefecture. Yoshimura pointed out that daily new case numbers had dropped to the 50s when the declaration was revoked in late February, and presented data showing improvements to the local medical system.

    "We have to strike a balance between socio-economic factors and anti-infection measures," he stressed. He also suggested that the current surge in new cases was due in part to the going away and welcome parties that accompany Japan's new job and transfer season in March and April, as well as the new coronavirus variants.

    (Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa, Sachiko Miyakawa, and Yasutoshi Tsurumi, Osaka City News Department; and Chikako Kida, Kobe Bureau)

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