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Editorial: Ruling deeming Tokyo's COVID business restrictions illegal serves as warning

The Tokyo District Court has ruled that an order by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for a restaurant chain operator to shorten its business hours as a coronavirus countermeasure was illegal. The local government's orders to shorten hours restrict the rights of citizens, and there are also penalties for violations. The latest ruling serves as a call for administrative authorities to be careful about applying such orders.

    In March last year, when a second state of emergency was in effect, the metropolitan government issued its first order to shorten operating hours to 27 establishments that were not complying with such requests. Global-Dining Inc., which operates 26 of the restaurants, sued the metropolitan government over the move.

    The chain claimed that the order was handed out to make an example of the company after it announced on its website that it would continue to operate late at night. In Tokyo at the time, over 2,000 restaurants had shunned the request to shorten their hours.

    In its ruling, the court acknowledged that requests and orders to shorten business hours themselves are important infection control measures. It therefore ruled that the order could not be called unreasonable, and that it did not violate the freedom to operate a business guaranteed under Japan's Constitution. However, the coronavirus special measures law states that orders can be given to business only "when there is a particular need to do so to prevent the spread of infections." The court ruled that this did not apply to the case in question and that the order was thus illegal.

    At the time, the number of new infections was decreasing, and a decision had already been made to lift the state of emergency. The order was accordingly in effect for only four days.

    In its ruling, the court took issue with the fact that the metropolitan government had not provided a reasonable explanation as to why an order was necessary under such circumstances. It also criticized the fact that the standards for issuing such orders were unclear. In addition, the court said consideration for the efforts of the restaurants, such as their measures to prevent the spread of infections, was needed.

    At the same time, the court rejected the restaurant's claim for damages from the metropolitan government. It said there were no precedents that could serve as a reference in relation to the order to shorten operating hours and noted that the prefectural government's move had been supported by a panel of experts, and accordingly judged that Tokyo had not been negligent.

    A metropolitan government council meeting had heard the view that the situation of establishments not complying with the request to shorten their hours was creating a sense of unfairness among the many restaurants obeying the request.

    Nevertheless, the ruling's point that administrative authorities should be cautious in their response is a serious one. It is a warning that if orders are issued in the future without sufficient investigation or due consideration, then authorities could be held liable for compensation.

    If authorities are going to implement measures that restrict people's freedom or rights, then they must do their utmost to provide thorough explanations to gain understanding from the public.

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