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Tokyo seeks stronger virus steps under quasi-state of emergency

People wearing face masks walk in Tokyo's Shibuya area on April 8, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government will place Tokyo under a quasi-state of emergency, allowing local authorities to take stronger measures to combat COVID-19 as worries increase over a resurgence of infections in the capital, an official with knowledge of the matter said Thursday.

    The plan comes after new coronavirus cases in Tokyo rose to a two-month peak on Wednesday, and with less than four months to go before it hosts the Summer Olympics.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to hold a coronavirus task force meeting Friday evening to finalize the decision, the official said, adding other prefectures including Saitama and Kyoto are also being considered for tougher restrictions.

    Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters she had asked for the capital to be placed under a quasi-state of emergency and she will consult with the government on how long it will be in place.

    She said it should cover the Golden Week holidays from late April through early May, one of the busiest periods of the year for travel.

    "Reducing the flow of people is key in preventing infections," she said.

    The measures could include bringing forward closing times for restaurants and bars to 8 p.m. from 9 p.m. in densely populated areas, people with knowledge of the matter said.

    Coronavirus cases have been creeping up since a state of emergency covering Tokyo ended on March 21. The capital saw 555 new infections on Wednesday, the most since early February, and reported 545 on Thursday.

    Koike had voiced concern the capital could go the way of Osaka Prefecture, which was quicker to ease restrictions and has since seen infections climb to record highs as more-contagious variants of the coronavirus have spread quickly.

    "We must immediately take steps given the risk of an explosive rise in infections," Norio Omagari, head of the Disease Control and Prevention Center at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, said at a meeting held by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a press conference the government will "promptly consider" Koike's request for the semi-state of emergency.

    Three prefectures -- Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama -- could also be subject to the stronger measures given their proximity to Tokyo.

    Chiba Gov. Toshihito Kumagai told reporters he is not considering a similar request to the government at the moment but the situation is touch-and-go.

    A legal revision that came into effect in February introduced the quasi-state of emergency as a way to take targeted steps to bring down infections while keeping the economy going as much as possible. Governors can now designate cities and towns for stronger measures, unlike the full-fledged version, which covers an entire prefecture.

    The quasi-state of emergency also carries a smaller fine for restaurants and bars that refuse to comply with orders to shorten business hours, a maximum of 200,000 yen ($1,800) rather than up to 300,000 yen.

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