Japan's central government has declared a third state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic with new restrictions imposed in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. Local leaders requested the move as they face a sharp rise in new coronavirus cases.
The declaration comes as Tokyo prepares to host the Summer Olympics, slated to begin in July, and just before Japan enters one of its biggest holiday seasons, Golden Week, in late April.
The emergency measures stop short of a full lockdown, but they impose limits on restaurants and other businesses. The strictest rules will apply to places that sell alcohol or offer karaoke. They'll be asked to close entirely, while many other establishments will close at 8 p.m. The new policies, which carry fines but largely rely on voluntary compliance, go into effect on Sunday and will run through at least May 11.
Nationwide, Japan is seeing spikes in new cases and hospitalizations, both of which are soaring toward the record heights that were seen at the start of 2021. Some 5,452 people tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
Health officials attribute much of the new wave of cases to the rapid spread of new coronavirus variants that were first detected in the United Kingdom and other countries, Kyodo News reports.
In the Tokyo region, government and sporting officials have continually been forced to adjust plans for the 2020 Games, which were postponed until this summer due to the pandemic. Last month, organizers said no international fans will be allowed to attend the games this summer.
The Olympic torch relay, which has been making its way around Japan, has been rerouted away from public roads in Osaka, site of the worst spike in new cases. And while statues of the mascots for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have now been officially unveiled, they're not yet on full public display due to fears about the spread of the coronavirus, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Japanese health officials are also concerned about the country's very low vaccination rate. Fewer than 850,000 people in Japan are fully vaccinated — a strikingly low number for an advanced country with a population of about 126 million.
Japan's health ministry has authorized only one vaccine, made by Pfizer/BioNTech. That decision came in mid-February, putting the country well behind its peers in the massive effort to roll out and administer vaccine doses to protect against COVID-19. Many Japanese people are also wary of vaccines after a decades-long string of scandals undermined public trust.
Overall, Japan has reported about 560,000 coronavirus cases and 9,800 COVID-19 deaths, according to the latest government data.