Japan on Friday further expanded a coronavirus state of emergency from six areas, including Tokyo, to nine, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga repeated his determination to hold the Olympics in just over two months.
Japan has been struggling to slow infections ahead of the games. The three additions are Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, where the Olympic marathon will be held, and Hiroshima and Okayama in western Japan.
Despite the worsening infections, Suga stressed his commitment to holding the games safely and securely while protecting Japanese by strictly controlling the movements of foreign participants, including possibly expelling journalists covering the event if they defy regulations.
“I understand there are various difficulties, but the priority is to stop the further spread of infections and protect the people's lives and health,” Suga said.
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The three additional areas will join Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures already under the emergency coronavirus restrictions through May 31, Suga announced at a government taskforce meeting Friday. Bars, karaoke parlors and most entertainment facilities are required to close. Business owners who comply will be compensated; those who don't could face fines.
“Infections are escalating extremely rapidly in populated areas,” Suga said. “As new variants continue to spread, we judged that now is a very important time to stop the further spread of infections.”
It was the second expansion of the emergency in just one week. Suga declared a state of emergency — Japan's third — in four prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka starting April 25, then expanded it to six prefectures last Friday. Despite the emergency measures, infections are continuing to spread in wider areas of Japan instead of slowing.
In the worst-hit Osaka area, hospitals are overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Many are waiting at home or at hotels with oxygen, and more than a dozen have died without being able to get a hospital room. Coronavirus treatment in Japan is largely limited to public or university hospitals, where treatment of non-COVID-19 patients has been largely curtailed.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, who heads a government panel of experts, urged organizers to carefully study how much additional burden Olympic participants will place on already-strained medical systems.
Suga said he will decide on a possible further extension of the emergency by evaluating the virus situation at the end of May.
His government is under heavy pressure from the public, increasingly frustrated by a slow vaccine rollout and repeated emergency declarations. Many now oppose hosting the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics, and people appear to be less cooperative with non-compulsory stay-at-home and social-distancing requests.
Less than 2% of the public has been fully vaccinated in Japan, one of the world's least inoculated.
The expansion of the state of emergency is a major shift from the government’s initial plan that relied on less stringent measures.
The addition of Hiroshima to the areas covered by the emergency measures comes just days after Japanese organizers announced that a visit next week by International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach to mark the Hiroshima leg of the torch relay has been canceled.
Earlier Friday, organizers of a petition demanding the cancellation of the Olympics submitted more than 350,000 signatures to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike that were collected since early May. The petition says money spent on the games would be better used on people in financial need because of the pandemic.
On Thursday, Japan reported 6,800 new coronavirus cases, increasing its total to 665,547 with 11,255 deaths.