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Japan's hardest-hit region lifts coronavirus emergency

New cases plummet in Hokkaido but residents still told to stay home

Hokkaido is a popular destination among Chinese tourists.   © Reuters

SAPPORO, Japan -- The Japanese prefecture hardest hit by the new coronavirus is ending its state of emergency as planned on Thursday, saying infection risks are now "under a certain level of control."

The country's northernmost main island of Hokkaido still has the highest number of cases overall among Japan's 47 prefectures. But it found no new patients Wednesday for the first time in a month, thanks to expanded screening and treatment capacity, as well as greater information-gathering efforts.

Hokkaido, famed for its snow festivals and seafood, became the first prefecture to declare a state of emergency on Feb. 28. "We were on defense until now, but we hope to enter a new stage starting the 20th," Gov. Naomichi Suzuki said Wednesday.

The local government will continue to urge residents to stay home on weekends to prevent the spread of the virus.

Despite the slowing outbreak here, the island's economy has taken a major hit from the coronavirus. Many domestic flights to and from its New Chitose Airport have been canceled. Chinese tourist traffic has virtually disappeared, impacting key attractions such as the ski resort town of Niseko. If the outbreak persists until June, the Hokkaido government projects overnight visitors to the island could plunge by 9 million.

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