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Coronavirus

Japan eases business restrictions despite COVID-19 risk

Public events to host more guests; restaurants return to normal hours

Tourists crowd a shopping street near Ise Shrine in western Japan: The government's "Go To Travel" campaign, aimed at reviving tourism despite the pandemic, has sparked criticism. (Photo by Koji Uema) 

TOKYO -- Restaurants and karaoke parlors in Tokyo's 23 wards were free to operate normally as of Wednesday, after authorities in the Japanese capital lifted their request that such businesses close no later than 10 p.m.

The early closure request for central Tokyo was originally set to run from Aug. 3 through Aug. 31 and later extended for two weeks.

Yoshihide Suga, who was selected as Japan's new prime minister on Wednesday, faces a number of big challenges early in his term. Among the most pressing is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of new outbreaks as businesses begin reopening fully.

Starting Saturday, the central government's request that audiences for public events be limited to 5,000 people will be eased. At present, venues are asked to fill no more than 50% of their seating capacity, up to a maximum of 5,000 people.

The government is also considering including Tokyo in its domestic travel subsidy program from Oct. 1. The "Go To Travel" campaign, which aims to support Japan's struggling tourism industry, pays for part of customers' domestic travel fees. The program began in July but Tokyo residents and those traveling to the capital are not eligible for the subsidies due to the prevalence of COVID-19 in the city.

The easing of the restrictions comes as the number of the coronavirus infections appears to have peaked. Nationwide, daily caseloads reached almost 2,000 in early August, but the number was down to 301 on Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization.

Weekly updates from Tokyo last week showed that none of the benchmark indicators, including the seven-day moving average for new daily cases, cases with unidentified infection sources, and patients in severe condition, had increased.

But experts warn the number of cases could surge again. Suga's new government faces the continuing challenge of kick-starting the economy while preventing a spike in infections, on top of the political question of whether to hold a snap parliamentary election.

"Tokyo is currently still not firm" in slowing the spread of the virus, warned Shigeru Omi, head of the government's COVID-19 task force, at a news conference on Friday. He said that the effective reproduction number -- the number of people the average carrier infects -- is just below 1 in the capital and that "there is always a possibility of a resurgence."

Suga emphasized in his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party that he would carry out the plans of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, in dealing with COVID-19 as the country moves toward the winter flu season, which will further strain medical services. Those plans include expanding testing capacity and reviewing the classification of COVID-19 so that some burdens on medical services could be reduced.

He also vowed to improve coordination between government offices. The coronavirus response has involved many bodies, including the health ministry and the ministry of internal affairs, which is in charge of communicating with local governments.

The new prime minister will try to draw lessons from the unpopularity of many of Abe's coronavirus policies. Support for the ruling LDP plunged to 36% in June from 45% in January, according to a Nikkei poll. Abe's COVID-19 response "lacked clear direction and was perceived as random," said Hisashi Yamada, an economist at the Japan Research Institute, in a recent report.

Abe's insistence on sending two fabric masks to every household in Japan drew much scorn. The online application process for receiving cash handouts had glitches. Many questioned the analog reporting procedures at public health centers and hospitals. "The coronavirus crisis highlighted the fact that Japan's digital systems did not function," Suga acknowledged at a news conference on Monday.

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