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Japan to expand, extend COVID-19 state of emergency

People wearing face masks walk in Osaka amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 6, 2021, the first weekday after the Golden Week holiday period. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government is set Friday to expand the ongoing COVID-19 state of emergency beyond Tokyo and the Osaka region and extend it to the end of May in a bid to bring down infection cases and ease the strain on hospitals.

    Restrictions, including a ban on eating establishments serving alcohol and requests for department stores and movie theaters to temporarily close, had been slated to end next Tuesday.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to finalize the decision to add Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures from Wednesday and push back the end date at a task force meeting in the evening after getting approval from experts in infectious diseases and other fields.

    The state of emergency has been in place in Tokyo, set to host the Summer Olympics in less than three months, as well as Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo since April 25, with targeted steps aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus during the Golden Week holidays.

    Restaurants and bars have been prohibited from serving alcohol or offering karaoke services and told to close by 8 p.m. with a fine of up to 300,000 yen ($2,750) for noncompliance. Services on public transportation have been scaled down, and businesses are being encouraged to have employees work from home.

    The government plans to ease some restrictions to mitigate the damage to the world's third-largest economy, officials said.

    Large commercial facilities such as department stores will be allowed to reopen with shorter hours, while a ban on spectators at large events such as sports games will be replaced with a cap of 5,000 people or 50 percent of a venue's capacity.

    Suga has stressed the state of emergency, the third since the start of the pandemic, has been successful in reducing the number of people out and about.

    But a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare panel warned Thursday infections have continued to increase nationwide, in part due to highly contagious variants of the coronavirus.

    Japan saw a total of 4,375 new infections on Thursday. While that is down 27 percent from the height of the fourth wave last Saturday, health minister Norihisa Tamura said the decline is attributable to hospitals testing less during the holidays.

    Osaka and Hyogo, in particular, have struggled to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, with several reports of people dying at home while waiting to be admitted.

    Meanwhile, Japan's vaccine rollout has lagged behind other countries, including Israel, Britain and the United States, and public dissatisfaction with its coronavirus response could add pressure on Suga ahead of a general election later this year.

    The government on Friday is also set to expand a quasi-state of emergency covering Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ehime and Okinawa prefectures to the end of May and add Hokkaido, Gifu and Mie. Miyagi, which has seen a fall in coronavirus cases, will be removed.

    Restrictions under the designation, introduced in a legal revision in February, are not as strict as a full-fledged emergency, with requests for restaurants and bars to close early limited to specific areas and smaller fines for noncompliance.

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