Japan on Thursday announced the easing of a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas from next week, with new daily cases falling just as the country begins final preparations for the Olympics starting in just over a month.
Japan has been struggling since late March to slow a wave of infections propelled by more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas.
New cases have since subsided significantly, paving the way for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to downgrade the state of emergency when it expires on Sunday to less stringent measures. The new measures will last until July 11 — just 12 days before the Olympics.
Suga said the relaxed measures will focus on early closures of bars and restaurants.
If another surge occurs and strains hospitals, “we will quickly take action, including strengthening the measures," Suga said, addressing concerns by medical experts. “We should be most cautious about causing another major upsurge.”
Limits for the number of fans at sporting events will remain in place, and “the upper limits for the Tokyo Olympics will be decided in line with these rules,” Suga said, suggesting that some fans will be allowed in Olympic venues.
Holding the Olympics before elections expected in the fall is also a political gamble for Suga, whose support ratings have tumbled over dissatisfaction with his handling of the pandemic, a slow vaccination drive and a lack of explanation about how he intends to ensure the virus doesn't spread during the Olympics.
Japan does not enforce hard lockdowns and the state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to order closures or shorter hours for non-essential businesses. Those that comply are compensated and violators fined. Stay-at-home and other measures for the general population are only requests and are increasingly ignored.
A team of experts on Wednesday released a simulation showing a possible jump in cases during the Olympics if the spread of the new variants and people's movements increase after emergency measures are eased.
Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters the government would not hesitate to issue another emergency declaration even in the middle of the Olympics to protect people's lives.
The state of emergency will remain in Okinawa, where hospitals are still overwhelmed, while Hiroshima and Okayama will be taken off the list.
Suga has opened up mass inoculation centers and started vaccinations at major companies, part of an ambitious target of as many as 1 million doses per day. As of Wednesday, only 6% of Japanese were fully vaccinated.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press