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Japan eyes lifting COVID emergency at end of month: source

People wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 walk past a crossing in Shinjuku, an entertainment district of Tokyo, on Sept. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government is leaning toward at least partially lifting the COVID-19 state of emergency covering 19 prefectures including Tokyo at the end of the month, government and ruling party sources said Tuesday.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is eager to ease restrictions for all the prefectures and expected to announce a final decision at a task force meeting next Tuesday, as he is set to step down as premier within days of the Liberal Democratic Party choosing its new leader on Sept. 29, the sources said.

    Under the state of emergency, people are urged to avoid going to crowded areas, while restaurants are asked to close by 8 p.m. and not serve alcohol. Attendance at large events such as concerts and sports games is limited to 5,000 or 50 percent of venue capacity, whichever number is smaller.

    The Japanese capital joined Okinawa in becoming subject to the emergency declaration on July 12 and remained under the measure during the Olympics and Paralympics, which were held with almost no spectators at venues. The other areas were placed under the measure in August.

    Nationwide infections peaked at around 25,000 per day in August and have steadily declined since, with 1,767 new cases reported on Tuesday.

    "(COVID-19 cases) are on a downward trend across the country and indicators in Tokyo have significantly improved," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan's pandemic response, said at a press conference.

    But hospitals continue to be strained by the large number of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms, and there are concerns the just-ended three-day weekend may have triggered new outbreaks.

    Some prefectures, such as Okinawa, where the situation has yet to significantly improve could get another extension of the state of emergency or may be downgraded to a quasi-state of emergency, which entails more limited restrictions, the sources said.

    Suga is set to travel to the United States this week to attend a quadrilateral summit with Australia and India, and upon returning on Sunday is expected to discuss with members of his Cabinet including Nishimura and health minister Norihisa Tamura to what extent the measures currently in place can be lifted.

    "We need to look at the trend for another week or so," a person at the prime minister's office said.

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