Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan from Friday as the country expands COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant, which has caused cases to rise to new highs. in metropolitan areas.
The restriction, which is a kind of pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last until February 13. With three other prefectures – Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi – under similar measures since early January, the restriction status now covers 16 areas 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 vital protection against the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer’s vaccines for children aged 5 to 11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus, focusing on requiring restaurants to close early and not serve alcohol, and urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing. social, as the government seeks to minimize the damage to the economy.
Under the latest measures, most restaurants are being asked 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 9:00 p.m., while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and do not serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen (232 euros) a day in compensation from the government, while those that close at 8 p.m. receive 25,000 yen (194 euros) a day.
Critics say the measures, which target bars and restaurants almost exclusively, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, manager of a Japanese-style “izakaya” restaurant in central Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less compensation from the government.
“We can’t do business without serving alcohol,” Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television. “It seems that only restaurants are subject to restrictions.”
Some experts question the effectiveness of imposing restrictions on restaurants only, noting that infections show no signs of slowing in the three prefectures that have already been subject to the measures for nearly two weeks.
After more than two years of repeated restrictions and requests for social distancing, the Japanese are becoming increasingly uncooperative with such measures. People have gone back to riding crowded trains and shopping in crowded stores.
Tokyo’s main train station, Shinagawa, was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work on Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreigners when the omicron variant began to spread in other countries. Japan says it will stick to a strict border policy until the end of February as the country tries to beef up medical systems and treatment.
The strict border controls have drawn criticism from foreign students and academics who say the measures are unscientific.
A group of scholars and experts from Japan and the US recently launched a petition, led by Japan Society Director Joshua Walker, calling on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government to allow foreign scholars and students to return to enter the country under careful preventive measures.
A letter to Kishida, signed by hundreds of scholars and experts on Japan-US studies, urged his government to relax border controls to allow educators, students and scholars to enter Japan and continue their academic activity. Many of them have been forced to abandon their studies in Japan and focus instead on other countries, including South Korea.
“They become the bridges between Japan and other societies. They are future legislators, business leaders, and teachers. They are the foundation of the US-Japan alliance and other international relationships that support Japan’s fundamental national interests,” the letter said. “The closure is damaging Japan’s national interests and international relations.”
Japan recently announced that it will allow 87 students on Japanese government scholarships to enter the country, but petitioners say there are many others on foreign government-sponsored scholarships who are still unable to enter.
Tokyo recorded 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection on Thursday, surpassing the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.
At a meeting of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s task force, experts sounded the alarm over the accelerating rise led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at the National Center for Global Health and an adviser to the Tokyo metropolitan government panel, said Tokyo’s daily new cases may exceed 18,000 in a week if the rise continues at the pace current.
Although only part 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 rise in cases could quickly overwhelm medical systems once the infections spread even more among the elderly. population most likely to become seriously ill.
The surge in infections has begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The ministry has cut 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 have received the first two doses of the vaccine, rollout of booster shots has been slow, reaching only 1.4% of the population so far.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism