TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday officially announced that the country will extend its state of emergency through May 31.
The decree was initially set to expire on Wednesday.
The world's third largest economy has escaped the dire fate of the U.S. and Europe, which have had to deal with explosive increases in coronavirus infections. Japan also seems to be past its peak days of new infections. The number of new infections in Japan is gradually decreasing. "About 700 people in the country were testing positive daily at one time," Abe said, "but that number has since receded to 200."
But Abe judged that it is too early to dismiss the emergency decree, which has allowed local governments to request that people stay home and some businesses to close.
"Nearly one more month is needed to improve the medical system, which has been stretched thin," Abe told reporters at a news conference on Monday evening. "The reduction of new infections has still not attained the necessary level."
Abe argued that new daily infections need to fall below 100 for the state of emergency to be lifted. "More than 100 patients nationwide every day are recovering" and leaving the hospital, he said. "So newly infected cases should be reduced below that level."
The prime minister apologized for not being able to terminate the state of emergency in one month but added that an advisory panel of medical experts will judge the situation again sometime around May 14. If the panel determines the situation has made necessary improvements, the declaration will be lifted before May 31.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's coronavirus response chief, told parliament on Monday that a return to normalcy requires a comprehensive examination which takes into account the number of new cases, the situations in neighboring prefectures, the handling of both seriously ill patients at medical institutions and the availability of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests to detect infections.
At his news conference, Abe told reporters that "we would like to move step by step toward exiting the state of emergency."
For that to happen, he said, Japanese will have to adopt new lifestyles that take social distancing and other measures into account. "We shall bring back ordinary life by fearing the virus correctly," he said.
Earlier on Monday, Abe met with panel members and told them prefectures that no longer need to exercise "special caution" can gradually begin to balance protective measures against the virus with normalized economic activities.
In these prefectures, some of the current limitations on social and economic activities will be relaxed, though people will still be asked to refrain from crossing into other prefectures.
The panel proposed a set of lifestyle adjustments that include always wearing a mask when going outside, maintaining a distance of at least two meters between oneself and others, and washing one's hands and face upon returning home.
The panel also encouraged Japan's residents to take notes on where they have gone and who they have met to facilitate tracking in case they end up contracting the virus.
People should also refrain from talking and not sit face to face while having meals, the panel members advised.
The coming month will be "a preparation period for the next step," Abe told reporters. Stores, restaurants and cultural facilities will be allowed to reopen -- and small events to be held -- if protective measures are adopted. Safety guidelines for these businesses will be issued within two weeks, the prime minister said.
However, residents of 13 prefectures, including Tokyo and other urban areas that are currently designated as needing "special caution," will be asked to continue staying home as much as needed to cut down social contact by 80%. The government believes that accomplishing this will stop the virus from spreading.
Abe on April 7 declared a state of emergency for seven prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka, then expanded it nationwide on April 16 to persuade people to cancel their Golden Week travel plans, which could have driven up the infection rate.