Japan cautiously lifts last of virus emergency controls

The first phase of Japan’s battle against the novel coronavirus ended Monday as the government annulled the state of emergency in the Hokkaido and Tokyo metropolitan areas, tiptoeing its way into a new reality still riddled with uncertainty.

After consulting with an advisory panel composed of infectious disease experts, the government lifted the declaration in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, removing the last of the restrictions. It had already cleared the declaration in 39 prefectures on May 14 and three prefectures in the Kansai region — Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto — last Thursday, earlier than their scheduled conclusion on May 31.

The government’s decision to lift the declaration early highlights its strong desire to revive the nation’s faltering economy as soon as possible. Overall, the country has managed to keep the death toll relatively low compared to other countries and bring down the number of new coronavirus patients to government-set thresholds for reopening.

Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who leads the government coronavirus response, has advised the public to avoid cross-prefectural travel at least through the end of the month.

The government, he said, will analyze the infection situation every three weeks to determine whether to scale back restrictions on outings and holding large, crowded events.

“It’s not possible to make this infectious disease caused by the novel virus vanish,” Nishimura said. “We’re able to lift the state of emergency by suppressing this big wave (of infection), but the infection will occur sporadically from now on. Based on that premise, it’s important to expand economic activities, while putting preventative measures in place, and not overlook small waves before they become big.”

The government identified three criteria for rescinding the declaration: a ratio of newly infected patients per a week of 0.5 or less per 100,000 people, the stability of the health care system — taking into account the number of available hospital beds and of patients with serious symptoms — and the capability to monitor the infection, including through testing.

Tokyo, Chiba and Saitama have met the first numeric threshold, with ratios of 0.36, 0.10 and 0.15, respectively, through Sunday, according to data compiled by public broadcaster NHK.

Kanagawa and Hokkaido, though, missed the target, with ratios of 0.70 and 0.76. Nevertheless, the government proceeded to dial back the restrictions in those two prefectures, judging that they are able to trace infection routes, their health care systems are not overwhelmed and the overall number of patients has been trending downward.

Although the government has expressed cautious optimism and businesses are reopening, it’s unlikely that everyday activities will return to pre-pandemic levels for the foreseeable future.

On Monday morning, commuters flooded train stations, but a majority of them were wearing face masks.

This past weekend department stores in the greater Tokyo metropolitan areas resumed their operations, but their employees wore transparent face shields and sprayed disinfectant on customers’ hands at the entrance. Cell phone data showed the turnouts around major train stations were between 40 to 70 percent lower on Sunday compared to the time before the infection began to spread.

According to infectious disease experts the country remains in a precarious state, with many warning that the spread of the virus will continue even though it may not be apparent.

Public health authorities and local governments have been tasked to stay vigilant, watching for early signs of transmission while executing the nation’s “test, trace, isolate and support” mantra to prevent any flare-ups.

The public has also been encouraged to embrace what the government describes as a “new lifestyle” approach to fighting the virus, adopting measures such as wearing face masks, maintaining social distance and telecommuting. The government’s guidelines, which are expected to be published soon, recommend limiting the number of spectators at concerts and art galleries by as much as half before gradually increasing capacity at the events.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government last week publicized its criteria for easing social-distancing measures and voluntary business closure requests based on seven criteria that would be assessed over a span of two weeks.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe imposed the emergency declaration in seven prefectures on April 7 and later expanded it to cover the entire country on April 16. He decided to extend the effective date through the end of May out of concern that a mass movement of people ahead of and during the Golden Week holidays, between late April and early May, might accelerate virus transmission and exacerbate the crisis.

As of Monday morning, about 16,600 people had been infected with the novel coronavirus in Japan and roughly 840 people had died.

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