Japanese Cities Under Virus Semi-Emergency

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan designated Osaka and two other areas for new virus control steps on Thursday as infections there rise less than four months before the Tokyo Olympics.

Osaka, neighboring Hyogo and Miyagi in the north have had sharp increases in daily cases since early March, soon after Japan scaled down its partial and non-binding state of emergency that began in January. Japan lifted the state of emergency in the Tokyo area on March 21, fully ending the measures aimed at slowing the coronavirus and relieving pressure on medical systems treating COVID-19 patients.

Experts have raised concerns about Osaka's rapid spike -- with many cases linked to new variants of the virus from Britain -- and the burden on health care.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, at a government task force meeting Thursday, designated the three prefectures for pre-emergency status under a new intensive prevention law beginning next Monday. The measure lasts until May 5.

"The measure is intended to prevent the infections from spreading further so that we don't have to issue another state of emergency," Suga said.

An international figure skating championship is scheduled in April 15-18 in Osaka city, where skaters from five countries are to participate. The Olympic torch relay is scheduled to pass through Osaka city in two weeks.

"Personally, I think the Olympic torch relay in Osaka City should be canceled," Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said, noting that virus prevention steps such as social distancing and avoiding non-essential outings should be ensured rather than hosting the event.

Torch relay organizers have already asked people to keep social distance, wear masks and refrain from cheering when runners pass. They have said they will reroute or cancel legs of the relay if needed.

Suga said it is the first time the government is applying the law enacted in February. It is designed to target specific municipalities as a pre-emergency measure and allows prefectural leaders to request or order business owners to close at 8 p.m. and take other steps. It allows compensation for those who comply and fines for violators.

The measures, like the previous state of emergency, largely focus on restaurants and bars, while stores, schools, theaters and museums will not be affected.

Six cities -- Osaka in Osaka prefecture, Kobe and three other cities in Hyogo, and Sendai in Miyagi prefecture -- are covered.

Japan has so far managed the pandemic much better than the United States and Europe without imposing a binding lockdown. But Suga's government has been struggling to control the spread of the virus while minimizing damage to the economy.

Japan was also weak on testing despite repeated calls from experts and opposition lawmakers. Suga on Thursday vowed to step up testing capacity while strengthening monitoring and preventive measures for new variants, while promising to do utmost to protect the medical system by securing enough beds and hospital rooms.

"We will do everything we can to keep the infections from becoming a big wave," Suga said, and urged people to take basic preventive measures until they're vaccinated.

Japan had 474,773 cases and 9,162 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the health ministry. Osaka reported 599 daily new cases Wednesday, surpassing Tokyo's 414.

Cases in Tokyo has also been on the rise. The capital city on Thursday reported 475 new cases. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike warned that a situation like in Osaka "can happen here at any time."

Government advisers say cases are increasing in parts of the country, including western and northern Japan, and variants that are believed to be more contagious are rising rapidly in the Osaka region.

Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido told reporters his prefecture has faced sharp upsurges since early March, especially in Kobe and a few other cities where the majority of new cases were from variants.

He also noted that younger generations, including children, are being infected, another possible sign that the variants are behind the spread.