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Japan Shuts Tokyo Bars, Bans Sports Fans in New Virus Emergency

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/23/2021 Isabel Reynolds and Lisa Du

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a new state of emergency running from Sunday to May 11 in Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures, imposing some of the toughest measures yet to control a surge in virus cases.

Suga told reporters Friday night the country needs to take strong actions as it heads into a string of holidays in late April and early May, known as “Golden Week,” a peak travel season. He also said the government will earmark 500 billion yen ($4.6 billion) to help businesses hurt by the restrictions.

“If we don’t act, there is a concern that the virus surge we are seeing in big cities could spread nationwide,” he said. The measures will be short-term and focused, he said, adding he’s not thinking of another supplemental budget.

The government is instructing bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol, and seeking to ban fans from major sporting events. Establishments with karaoke equipment and commercial facilities with floor space of more than 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet) will be asked to close during the state of emergency.

a sign on the side of a building: Osaka Under Tighter Virus Restrictions as Infections Rebound © Bloomberg Osaka Under Tighter Virus Restrictions as Infections Rebound

Restaurants and bars line a street in the Shinsekai district of Osaka earlier in April.

Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

The declaration will cover Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, which together make up about a quarter of the country’s population. Japan is trying to end a worrying rise in Covid-19 cases that comes three months before Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics. Its vaccination program has reached less than 2% of the country’s 126 million people -- well behind the rates in many advanced economies.

Bars and restaurants in several major urban areas are already closed by 8 p.m. under existing lighter restrictions. But that has not been enough to stem infections, which have hit daily records this month in Osaka and climbed in Tokyo to levels not seen since January, when the capital was under its second state of emergency.

“We’ve reached the limit of virus measures based on people voluntarily changing their behavior,” Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association physicians’ lobby, told reporters Thursday.

But civil liberties enshrined in the Japanese Constitution prevent imposing lockdowns backed by police actions, which means the government is putting the onus on the likes of bars, bowling alleys and baseball leagues to try to keep people from gathering.

Suga’s government is calling for people to avoid unnecessary travel and stay away from crowded places. The premier urged businesses to have staff work from home, with the aim of cutting commuter numbers by 70% -- bringing back a numerical target for reducing contact reminiscent of restrictions a year ago.

The new moves could delay economic recovery, deal a heavy blow to struggling businesses and deliver another hit to a tourism sector that is reeling from the pandemic.

chart, histogram: Heading Up © Bloomberg Heading Up

While Japan has so far succeeded in keeping infections and deaths at far lower levels than those in much of Europe and the U.S., its vaccine program has yet to kick into high gear, meaning restricting activities is the most powerful tool Suga has for reining in cases. Meanwhile, the country is seeing an increasing number of cases involving virus mutations.

The impact of stricter curbs could even nudge Japan toward a double-dip recession, economists said.

“There will be an economic hit for sure, but I also wonder if the latest restrictions will be strong enough to contain the spread of the virus,” said Mari Iwashita, chief market economist at Daiwa Securities Co. “If they have failed to do so by mid-May, I can’t see the Tokyo Olympics going ahead.”

For more on Japan’s Covid-19 fight:
Japan’s Suga Recommends Tokyo Virus Emergency as Olympics NearHow the Tokyo Olympics Risks Turning Into a Superspreader EventWhy the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Will Be Like No Other: QuickTakeJapan Cuts Reliance on AstraZeneca Vaccine With More Pfizer Jabs

Suga also said at the news conference that he will implement policies to stage a safe Olympics. Fears have risen in Japan that the international sporting spectacle could become a superspreader event. The games have already been delayed a year due to the pandemic, and 73% of those surveyed in Japan by broadcaster ANN over the weekend said they were against holding the event this summer.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters the emergency declaration was not related to the event. Bach is set to visit Japan May 17-18, two months before the Olympics, Kyodo said Wednesday, citing sources close to the matter.

There is no law that prohibits the Olympics from taking place under an emergency, but it will likely impact the number of domestic spectators allowed. Overseas fans are already banned from the event.

(Updates with comments from Suga at news conference)

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©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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