By Makiko Inoue (c.2021 The New York Times Company)
TOKYO — Japan on Friday extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions until the end of May to contain a surge of coronavirus cases, casting further doubt on the country’s ability to safely host the Summer Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in 11 weeks.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made the announcement at a meeting of the government’s coronavirus task force, saying that the measures were necessary because infections remain at a “high level, mainly in large cities.”
The announcement extends emergency measures imposed last month to two more prefectures, covering a total of six prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka, that are together home to over one-third of Japan’s 126 million people. Another eight prefectures will be under slightly looser restrictions.
The existing states of emergency, which were imposed to curb travel during the just-ended Golden Week holiday period and had been set to expire next week, have not slowed Japan’s fourth wave of coronavirus infections. In early March, the country recorded about 1,000 new cases daily. It is now recording nearly 6,000, according to a New York Times database.
Health officials say that they are seeing a growing number of cases of coronavirus variants spreading in the population, including at least 26 cases of the strain first detected in India. Authorities in Tokyo say that in 4 out of 5 cases found in the city, the infected person neither traveled abroad nor had close contact with someone who had.
The outbreak is stretching health care systems even in Japan’s biggest cities. On Thursday, there were 370 people being treated for serious cases of COVID-19 in Osaka, a prefecture of 9 million people, more than the number of hospital beds available for seriously ill patients.
Japan, which has recorded more than 620,000 infections and 10,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, has controlled the virus better than many countries. But the government has faced criticism for the sluggish pace of vaccinations, and for pledging to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to begin July 23, despite widespread public opposition.
Toru Hashimoto, a lawyer and a former governor of Osaka prefecture, said on a television show Friday that Olympic organizers were ignoring the severity of Japan’s outbreak, and that it was inappropriate to continue holding pre-Olympic “test events” during the state of emergency, even though they are taking place without spectators.
“If the government wants to reduce the number of people in the city, it’s not a time when test events can be held,” Hashimoto said.
The government has imposed two previous states of emergency during the pandemic, although they are looser than the total lockdowns seen in many nations. The measures allow the prefectures to ask businesses to close or to restrict their hours, and to fine those that do not.
Under the extended state of emergency, people are asked not to go out for nonessential matters, especially after 8 p.m., and to refrain from traveling outside their prefectures. Karaoke parlors are asked to close, and restaurants requested not to serve alcohol, with fines of up to 300,000 yen ($2,750) for noncompliance.