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Tokyo and 12 areas to be put under COVID quasi-emergency from Jan. 21

Restaurants and bars asked to close early or limit alcohol sales until Feb. 13

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government will put Tokyo and 12 other areas under a quasi-state of emergency after the capital reported a record 7,377 new COVID infections.

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan decided Wednesday to place Tokyo and 12 other areas under a coronavirus quasi-state of emergency, with the capital reporting a record 7,377 new infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country.

The decision will allow the governors of Tokyo and the dozen other prefectures to ask restaurants and bars to close early and stop or limit the serving of alcohol. The measure is set to be in place from Friday to Feb. 13.

"This has been a fight against an unknown virus, but we hope to overcome this situation by preparing sufficiently without fearing excessively," said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a meeting of the government's COVID-19 task force.

Japanese authorities worry hospitals that need to treat patients not admitted due to the virus will be overwhelmed if infections continue to increase at the current pace and affect more elderly people and those with underlying health conditions.

Another concern is a shortage of essential workers such as medical staff due to a sharp rise in those designated as close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19.

"We need to quickly prevent the spread of infections, given the potential for a major strain on the medical system in the near future," said economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who is also in charge of the government's coronavirus response.

The government's subcommittee on the COVID-19 response gave the green light to the planned quasi-emergency stretching over roughly three weeks, a day after Japan's daily count of confirmed infections topped 30,000 for the first time.

While Kishida has made the COVID-19 response a top priority since taking office in October, his government now faces the difficult task of striking a balance between imposing anti-virus measures and keeping the economy going, especially as health experts say many people show no or mild symptoms despite Omicron's highly transmissible nature.

Japan has never imposed a lockdown during the pandemic.

Shigeru Omi, the government's top COVID-19 adviser, suggested it is not necessary to halt both social and economic activities but urged people to avoid high-risk situations such as gathering in large numbers and speaking in loud voices.

"I think we don't need to have eateries close if people dine in a group of about four and speak quietly while wearing face masks," said Omi, who heads the subcommittee.

Three prefectures have already been placed under a quasi-emergency since early January and the addition of the 13 will mean about a third of the nation's 47 prefectures are subject to stricter curbs.

Along with Tokyo, the targeted prefectures include its neighbors Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa in the metropolitan area, which saw a full state of emergency lifted about three months ago.

Aichi, Gifu and Mie in central Japan, along with Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Miyazaki in the country's southwest, also asked the central government to impose a quasi-emergency, as did Niigata, Gunma and Kagawa.

Under the quasi-emergency, governors can designate specific areas for measures against the virus and make their own decision on business hours or the serving of alcohol at local eateries.

The government will halt, in principle, the implementation of a program to check whether people visiting places like restaurants have been vaccinated twice or have proof of having tested negative for COVID-19 as a way of reviving economic activity, but still leave some room for governors to implement it on their own.

"We are aware that there are hopes for utilizing the program based on decisions by governors, who best know local situations," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

The governors of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in western Japan affirmed at a virtual meeting on Wednesday that if one of them decides to seek quasi-emergency curbs, they will ask for it together.

"In light of the current infection situation, we are likely to make a decision on making a request within this week," Hyogo Gov. Motohiko Saito said.

Matsuno said if the three prefectures make requests to be added to the list, the government will swiftly review them.

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