TOKYO (AP) — Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other parts of Japan starting Friday as the country expands COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant causing an increase in cases in metropolitan areas.
The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is expected to last until February 13. With three other prefectures – Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi – under similar measures since early January, the restraint status now covers 16 regions, or a third of the country.
While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have received a booster shot, which has been lifesaving protection against the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Department of Health on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged 5 to 11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infections.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring restaurants to close early and not serve alcohol, and to urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
As part of the latest measure, most restaurants are told to close at 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In Tokyo, certified restaurants that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m., while those that serve alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and do not serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen ($263) a day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. receive 25,000 yen ($220) a day.
Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style “izakaya” restaurant in downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less government compensation.
“We can’t do business without serving alcohol,” Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television. “It appears only restaurants are being targeted for the constraints.”
Some experts question the effectiveness of putting in place restrictions only on restaurants, noting that infections in the three prefectures already under the measures for nearly two weeks show no signs of abating.
After more than two years of repeated restrictions and demands for social distancing, the Japanese are becoming less and less cooperative with such measures. People are starting to ride on crowded trains again and shop in crowded stores.
Tokyo’s main station, Shinagawa, was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work on Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November, but quickly rolled them back to ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began to spread to other countries. Japan has said it will stick to the strict border policy until the end of February as the country tries to strengthen medical systems and treatment.
The stringent border controls have drawn criticism from overseas students and scholars who say the measures are unscientific.
A group of Japanese-American scholars and experts recently launched a petition, led by Japan Society head Joshua Walker, calling on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government to allow foreign scholars and students to re-enter the the country as part of prudent preventive measures.
A letter to Kishida, signed by hundreds of scholars and Japanese-American studies experts, urged his government to ease border controls to allow educators, students and scholars to enter Japan and continue their work university. Many of them were forced to abandon their studies in Japan and focus on other countries, including South Korea.
“They become bridges between Japan and other societies. They are future policy makers, business leaders and teachers. They are the foundation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and other international relations that support Japan’s core national interests,” the letter said. “The shutdown harms Japan’s national interests and international relations.”
Japan recently announced that it would allow 87 students on Japanese government scholarships to enter the country, but the petitioners claim that there are many more on foreign government-sponsored scholarships who do not still can’t get in.
Tokyo recorded 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection on Thursday, surpassing the previous record of 7,377 set the previous day.
At a meeting of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s task force, experts sounded the alarm over the rapid rise in power led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at the National Center for Global Health and adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government panel, said new daily cases in Tokyo could exceed 18,000 within a week if the increase continues at the current rate.
Although only a fraction of the growing number of infected people are hospitalized and occupy less than a third of available hospital beds in the Japanese capital, experts say the rapid upsurge in cases could quickly overwhelm medical systems once the infections will spread more among the elderly. population more likely to fall seriously ill.
The upsurge in infections has begun to cripple hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The ministry reduced the required self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.
While around 80% of Japanese people have received their first two doses of the vaccine, the rollout of boosters has been slow and has so far only reached 1.4% of the population.
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