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Less crowded, but Tokyo loop train is far from empty

More residents need to stay home to reach government's distancing target

Passengers wearing masks ride a train in Tokyo on April 7.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Ridership on central Tokyo's Yamanote train line has fallen 35% on weekday mornings as Japan encourages more people to work from home, but is still far from achieving the government's target to cut person-to-person contact by 80%.

Japan on Tuesday declared a state of emergency to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 4,000 nationwide. A range of nonessential businesses are expected to close across Tokyo and six other prefectures especially hit hard by the pandemic, but it remains to be seen whether the country can keep enough people home to contain the outbreak.

"If we can reduce person-to-person contact by 80%, the increase in infections will peak out in two weeks and shift to a decline," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday, citing medical experts.

The 80% reduction target is based on calculations by Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, who sits on the panel that advises the government on the virus. He said he believes it is crucial to significantly slash the number of people out and about to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming Japan's medical infrastructure.

Japan's reproduction number for the coronavirus -- or how many new people each patient infects -- was estimated at 1.7 based on data from March 21 to March 30, Nishiura said. He explained that a surge in cases in early April may have pushed that number above 3, overtaking Germany and putting Japan on track to having thousands of new cases daily like New York.

Japan's roads are also behind the 80% reduction target. Traffic congestion in Tokyo was about half what it usually is around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Dutch map app TomTom, with Osaka and Kobe logging 40% and 60% decreases, respectively. "Tokyo needs similar levels of restrictions to the U.S. and Europe," Nishiura said.

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