TOKYO — Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area on Thursday, authorizing more robust measures to fight a recent surge in coronavirus infections.
The emergency declaration, which will be effective from Friday to Feb. 7, will entail asking residents to stay home and calls for restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol by 7 p.m. and close by 8 p.m. Gyms, department stores and entertainment facilities will also be subject to the shorter hours.
The move comes as Tokyo confirmed 2,447 new coronavirus cases, eclipsing the previous record set Wednesday by more than 800 and fanning concerns that hospitals could soon become overwhelmed.
“The situation has worsened recently nationwide, and I feel a strong sense of crisis,” Suga said at a meeting of the government’s task force on the pandemic response. “We will take thorough steps.”
Residents of the area covered by the state of emergency — Tokyo, which is set to host the postponed Olympics this summer, and adjacent Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures — will be asked to refrain from nonessential trips outside their homes, especially after 8 p.m.
Companies will be encouraged to have employees work from home or stagger their shifts, with the goal of reducing the number of people in the office by 70 percent. Events will be capped at 5,000 people or 50 percent of venue capacity.
The measures are more relaxed than those under the previous state of emergency last spring, which saw schools and many businesses nationwide temporarily close and events canceled.
There will be no punishment for those that fail to comply, unlike the hard lockdowns other parts of the world have imposed. University entry exams will be held later this month as scheduled.
The government will increase financial support for dining and drinking establishments that cooperate with its request to shorten business hours from up to 40,000 yen ($390) a day to a maximum of 60,000 yen, and “name and shame” those that do not. Take-out and delivery will be exempt from the 8 p.m. cutoff.
An advisory panel of experts on infectious diseases and public health as well as economic and legal matters approved the government’s plan for the state of emergency on Thursday.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the response to COVID-19, told parliament the emergency declaration could be lifted if the daily number of coronavirus cases in Tokyo falls to 500, or about one-fifth of the current level.
Infections have been increasing nationwide, with daily cases reaching yet another all-time high of 6,100 on Thursday. The Tokyo metropolitan area has been hardest hit, accounting for about half of all cases in the country in recent weeks.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has repeatedly called on the government to declare a state of emergency, warning that the health care system is on the brink of collapse. She had asked restaurants and bars to close by 10 p.m., but many have not complied and the outbreak has only worsened after the New Year holidays.
Other parts of the country are also seeing increases in coronavirus cases, with Osaka and Aichi prefectures reporting 607 and 431 cases on Thursday, both record highs for a second day in a row.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said he intends to ask the government to add his prefecture to the area covered by the state of emergency. Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura has said he would do the same if the worrying trend continues for several more days.
Legislation was enacted last year giving the government the authority to make the emergency declaration, which provides a legal basis for governors to ask residents to stay home and enables stronger steps to deal with outbreaks.
The steps include the requisition of medical supplies and food as well as expropriation of private land for emergency health facilities.
A state of emergency was previously declared in Tokyo and six other prefectures in early April last year during Japan’s first wave of infections, and was expanded nationwide later that month. It was lifted in steps in May as coronavirus cases subsided.
Suga had been reluctant to repeat the move, hoping instead to strike a balance between curbing outbreaks and reviving the battered economy. But the prime minister has faced mounting pressure as his support ratings have plummeted in part due to public dissatisfaction with his COVID-19 response.
A third wave of infections across the country, by far the largest yet, forced Suga last month to announce the suspension of his signature “Go To Travel” subsidy program for promoting domestic tourism.
The government has also halted new entries into Japan of nonresident foreign nationals due to concerns over new, potentially more infectious coronavirus variants discovered in Britain and South Africa.