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4 more prefectures in Japan to take tougher virus steps

People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus visit a park on April 15, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government is set to designate Friday another four prefectures as requiring tougher restrictions to fight the latest wave of COVID-19 sweeping the country.

    The addition of Tokyo's neighbors -- Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama -- as well as Aichi in central Japan will bring the number of prefectures under a quasi-state of emergency to 10. The measures, including asking restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m. with fines for noncompliance, will be in effect from Tuesday to May 11.

    With Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga currently on a trip to the United States, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato is set to finalize the decision in his place at a coronavirus task force meeting in the evening.

    Coronavirus cases in Japan have steadily increased after a state of emergency was lifted last month. The nationwide tally topped 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Thursday, just under 100 days before the Tokyo Olympics are set to begin.

    Osaka, the epicenter of the current surge in infections, saw a record 1,208 cases on Thursday, while Tokyo reported 729, Kanagawa 242 and Aichi 218.

    An expert panel on Friday morning approved the decision to place tougher restrictions in more areas. Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the COVID-19 response, warned of the rapid spread of highly contagious variants, including some believed to cause serious symptoms at a higher rate.

    "We have to act with an extremely strong sense of caution," he said, later telling reporters the government would consider adding another prefecture, Nara, to the list if necessary.

    Health experts have warned that the situation could worsen during the Golden Week holidays from late April through early May, one of the year's busiest periods for travel.

    The government is calling on people to refrain from making trips between prefectures, and also asking them to avoid crowds when shopping and not using karaoke machines at eateries.

    Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi were placed under the quasi-state of emergency on April 5, with Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa being added Monday.

    Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura and his counterparts near Tokyo had asked the government Thursday to give them the authority to impose the tougher restrictions, made possible by a legal revision in February.

    They will be able to impose a maximum fine of 200,000 yen ($1,800) on restaurants and bars failing to follow the mandate to close early, though the measures will only be in place in some cities including Yokohama and Nagoya.

    Similar restrictions during the state of emergency covering parts of the country from early January through late last month were largely successful in bringing down infections. The full emergency carries heavier punishment for noncompliance.

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