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Coronavirus

Abe weighs declaring emergency under Japan's new legislation

Prefecture governors will be given authority to close schools, theaters and stores

A subway in Kyoto: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now has the power to declare an emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese lawmakers on Friday gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the authority to declare a state of emergency if the new-coronavirus outbreak escalates, giving authorities more options for curtailing its spread.

COVID-19 was added to legislation that deals with influenza, allowing Abe to make the declaration as early as Saturday if the disease poses a clear and serious threat to the lives or health of citizens and if a rapid nationwide spread would severely impact people's lives and economic well-being.

The prime minister will determine whether to make the declaration based on the views of a panel of infectious disease experts. "Right now, conditions aren't such that a state of emergency would be declared immediately," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated Friday.

A lack of legal powers has hamstrung the Japanese government's response to the outbreak. Abe in February requested school closings and a halt to big events, but this was not backed by the force of law.

Under the new legislation, a national emergency would give prefectural governors broad authority to restrict usage of such facilities as schools, movie theaters and department stores.

Residents could also be ordered to avoid going out aside from essential travel, which government guidelines define as seeking medical treatment, shopping for food and other necessities, and commuting to work.

Prefectural governments would be allowed to acquire food and medical supplies from producers and retailers, and even forcibly requisition them if necessary. Companies may also be ordered to maintain stocks of essential products.

Governors would be able to request or appropriate land and buildings for temporary medical facilities as well.

The amended legislation makes such declarations time-limited and aims to keep constraints on people's rights to a minimum. "We'll give full consideration to measures that would restrict individual rights," Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told upper house lawmakers Friday.

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