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Coronavirus

Japan set to lift COVID emergency nationwide after months of restrictions

Nation to be decree-free for first time since April, but some curbs staying for now

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to reporters during a press conference on Sept. 28 in Tokyo. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

TOKYO -- Japan on Tuesday officially decided to lift its state of emergency covering Tokyo and 18 other prefectures at the end of this month, as the country makes progress on its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who will be resigning from his post on Thursday, said the government has focused on "securing the health care system, implementing thorough infection-prevention measures and accelerating vaccinations."

"Hospital occupancy rates have fallen below 50% in every prefecture and seriously ill patients are on the decline," Suga told reporters Tuesday evening.

This will be the first time since early April in which all prefectures will be free of an emergency decree. The capital has been under a state of emergency since July, while Okinawa has been since May. The government will also lift its quasi-emergency covering eight other prefectures.

The number of daily infections in Japan has declined from a peak of about 25,000 in mid-August to around 1,200. Suga expressed confidence that vaccinations and antibody cocktails administered to patients would continue to prevent an increase in serious cases, while also vowing that the government would work to further stabilize the health system.

But at the same time, the outgoing prime minister warned that "a high level of vigilance will be needed" to avoid a resurgence in cases. "We need to assume the existence of the virus and prepare for the next wave," he said.

As a result, certain restrictions will be eased gradually, including outside dining.

The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Sept. 24. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

Restaurants and bars in prefectures under the state of emergency had been banned from serving alcohol and were asked to close by 8 p.m., while restrictions on large events limited spectators to 5,000 or 50% of the venue's capacity.

Following the expiration of the COVID emergency, restaurants that receive certification from local authorities will be able to operate until 9 p.m. Local governments, depending on the status of infections, will decide the specific hours during which restaurants in their areas will be allowed to serve alcoholic beverages.

Restrictions on large-scale events will also be eased for organizers that have formulated safety plans, such as requiring attendees to wear masks.

The government is attempting to balance two priorities -- curbing the virus and propping up the economy, now that nearly 60% of the population has received two COVID vaccine shots. So it is also recalibrating its guidelines should an emergency need to be reinstated, and looking at ways to use vaccine certificates and negative tests to ensure safe movement.

Under a new basic policy, even during a state of emergency, restaurants will be able to serve alcohol and operate until 9 p.m. if they have third-party approval of their infection control measures and require customers to show proof of inoculation or a negative test result. The government plans to conduct trial runs involving restaurants and events, beginning next month.

To make business travel easier, Suga also noted that Japan will shorten its quarantine period from two weeks to 10 days upon arrival, and will consider further relaxing restrictions based on vaccine certificates. And to shore up immunity, he said the government will prepare to begin administering booster shots by the end of the year.

Further details on easing rules will be left to the new government following Wednesday's election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's president -- who will succeed Suga as prime minister.

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