TOKYO -- Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that he will ask all elementary, middle and high schools to close temporarily, starting Monday, March 2, as the government tries to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
"With children's health and safety as our top consideration, we need to prepare in advance against the infection risks posed by large numbers of children and teachers gathering together for long periods of time every day," Abe said at a meeting to deal with the virus.
The prime minister reiterated that the next week or two will be "critical" in curbing the outbreak.
While it is up to schools and local governments to decide whether to suspend classes, the prime minister's request is likely to result in across-the-board closures. Japanese schools will have their year-end spring break from the middle of March through early April, so the closures will run through that period at least.
As of Thursday, 190 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Japan across 19 prefectures, including Hokkaido, Tokyo, Aichi, and Chiba, excluding those infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Earlier on Thursday, the northern island of Hokkaido instituted a weeklong closure of all 1,600 public elementary and junior high schools amid a rise in confirmed infections.
Japanese schools typically hold year-end exams and graduation ceremonies in March. Abe urged schools that go ahead with these events to take precautions against infection and minimize the number of people present.
The coronavirus has so far proved most dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes, while infecting children relatively rarely.
A study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the 44,672 cases reported through Feb. 11 found that just 416 patients were younger than 10, and another 549 were between the ages of 10 and 19. There were no deaths in the former group and only one in the latter.
School closures could accelerate companies' precautions against the coronavirus, as employees with children are forced to adjust their schedules or the way they work. Abe urged businesses to make accommodations such as letting parents take time off.
About half the respondents to a Nikkei poll of 127 companies on Thursday said they have at least partly switched over to telecommuting. Nearly 80% said they are holding off on events such as welcome and farewell parties.
About 40% of businesses are avoiding marketing visits, while 60% have banned domestic business trips. SoftBank Group has told staff that employees should hold meetings online.