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Coronavirus

Japan's decision on extending emergency to come during Golden Week

Partial lifting risks encouraging city dwellers to travel to remote regions

A pedestrian in the empty streets of Tokyo's Ginza district April 18: Japan is assessing whether the state of emergency has helped combat the coronavirus.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan will decide during the upcoming Golden Week holidays whether to extend the country's state of emergency beyond May 6, looking at such numbers as the pace of infection increases that reflect the effectiveness of the measures taken so far. 

The government's initial decree was issued on April 7, covering Tokyo and six other prefectures. Given the estimated two-week incubation period for the virus, if the measures have been effective, the infection rate should start to slow starting this week in those areas. 

The declaration was extended nationwide Thursday, and Japan has designated 13 prefectures -- including Aichi and the original seven covered by the emergency -- as hot spots requiring close attention.

The decision-making process involves three stages, with the government to start looking at data as early as Wednesday after hearing from experts. Key indicators include the days needed for the number of confirmed cases to double, the percentage of positive tests and the degree to which residents have reduced social contact.

Abe warned on Tuesday that "some areas are not doing enough" to meet the government's goal of reducing person-to-person contact by 80%. When announcing the initial emergency declaration on April 7, Abe said that new cases could peak in two weeks if contact is reduced by 70% to 80%.

The second phase begins two weeks after the nationwide emergency declaration, around the April 29 start of Golden Week, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government expected to determine whether more action is needed to curb the outbreak.

The final stage comes during Golden Week, which runs into the second week of May. Shigeru Omi, chair of a government panel on the virus, indicated in a news conference Friday that the group will consider around May 6 whether the outbreak has been brought under control.

Some countries are struggling to contain the outbreak. Singapore decided Tuesday to extend its "circuit breaker" shutdown for an additional four weeks until June 1,after a more than sixfold rise in cases since before the shutdown began April 7.

Japan could choose to maintain the state of emergency in a modified form. A nationwide extension may not be worthwhile after Golden Week, traditionally a peak time for travel and tourism.

The government could keep the declaration in place for the 13 hot spot prefectures while excluding those with relatively few cases. But that move risks encouraging people to flee from cities into areas perceived as safer, potentially bringing the virus with them.

"We're seeing the virus spread from cities into more remote areas," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the fiscal policy minister and leader of the government's coronavirus response, told reporters Monday. But he said the country is "not on track for an explosive surge" that would see cases double in two or three days.

Japan is considering adding Okinawa and other prefectures to its areas of concern. Okinawa, which has more than 100 cases, declared its own state of emergency and urged residents to avoid leaving their homes unnecessarily.

The legislation under which Abe declared the state of emergency lets authorities order businesses in these designated prefectures to close if they reject requests to do so, as well as name and shame those that do not comply. Nishimura suggested Monday that the government may direct pachinko parlors to shut down.

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