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Coronavirus

Japan lifts some COVID curbs ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Suga said accelerated vaccine rollouts provide hope for the Games

Japan's PM Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government on Thursday decided to lift the state of emergency in nine prefectures from Monday, though seven areas including Tokyo and Osaka will remain under a quasi-emergency state through July 11.

During a COVID response headquarters meeting, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the government will take a flexible approach such as strengthening countermeasures if infections increase or there are signs of the potential collapse of medical systems.

Restaurants in the target areas will be requested to close at 8 p.m., with the serving of alcohol allowed until 7 p.m. in restaurants and bars that "meet certain criteria." Concrete requirements are being discussed, and each municipality can decide whether it will allow a relaxation of restrictions.

The maximum number of spectators for large events will be maintained at 50% of the capacity or 5,000 people. For about a month after the lifting of restrictions, a transitional measure will be taken to limit the number of spectators to 10,000.

Okinawa, where hospitals have been overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus patients, will stay under emergency restrictions.

An advisory board of experts at the health ministry said Wednesday that the number of new COVID infections in Japan is continuing to decline. However, "there is an increase in the flow of people and the rate of decline is slowing in some areas, so there are concerns about a rebound in the future," the board said.

People walk by posters to promote the Olympic Games  in Tokyo on Wednesday.    © AP

The Olympics are scheduled to begin on July 23, but there are lingering public concerns about the possibility of a steep rise in coronavirus infections triggered by an influx of people into Tokyo and the spread of more contagious COVID-19 variants.

The government will take precautions to hold the Olympics "in a safe and secure manner," as called for in the official communique of the G-7 leaders published Sunday.

The health ministry's advisory board added that the government may need to redeclare the state of emergency from late July to early August -- during the Olympics -- if they detect any spread of the Delta variant first found in India.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters later on Thursday that his government would keep working on COVID countermeasures to host a "safe and secure" games. "Now that we are facing the great challenge of the pandemic, we must unite and show the world that we can overcome this difficulty through the efforts and wisdom of the people."

Asked about his recognition of risks during the games, Suga stressed that infection prevention measures will be taken, such as reducing the number of people coming from overseas and restrictions on the movement of athletes.

Suga said that accelerated vaccine rollouts provide hope. "I think there will be fewer seriously ill patients during the games and there will be fewer burdens on medical systems," he said.

The prime minister added that a total of 7.3 million doses of COVID vaccine were administered in the past week and a daily average of 1 million doses have been vaccinated recently. Workplace vaccination is slated to begin on Monday. "We are able to give the second shot to all the elderly who want to be inoculated by the end of July," Suga said.

Suga said that athletes and media coming from overseas will be subject to strict monitoring and frequent tests, adding: "Those who do not comply with the rules will be deported."

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