Tokyo Asks Government to Allow It to Take Virus Measures

TOKYO (AP) -- Tokyo has asked Japan's central government for permission to implement emergency measures to curb a surge in a rapidly spreading and more contagious coronavirus variant, just over three months before the start of the Olympics.

Tokyo came out of a state of emergency on March 21. Its governor, Yuriko Koike, told reporters Thursday that she asked the government to allow her to issue binding orders under a new virus prevention law enacted in February that include penalty for business owners who defy measures and compensation for those who comply.

Tokyo's step follows Osaka in western Japan, which declared a medical emergency after its hospitals became overwhelmed with new cases.

Tokyo reported 545 cases Thursday. Koike said she is alarmed by the rapid spread of the new variants, especially one initially detected in Britain.

"It would be a matter of time before Tokyo faces a situation similar to Osaka," Koike said.

She said timing and details of the new measures, including shorter hours for restaurants and bars, will be decided later, possibly on Friday.

The latest surge started in western Japan, including Osaka, where the daily toll hit a record 905 and Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura asked that the Olympic torch relay scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday be held at a park and not on the public road. He said more than 70% of hospital beds have been occupied, a threshold for a local medical alert.

Infections have also surged elsewhere in the country. With Japan's vaccination drive still at an early stage, the surge may cause further cancelations of Olympic-related events.

Kyodo News agency on Wednesday reported that Japan is considering prioritizing its Olympic athletes for vaccination by late June. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on Thursday denied that his government is discussing any details at the moment, but added that he is closely watching discussions among Olympic officials about how to ensure athletes' safety.

Inoculations started mid-February with medical workers, but still account for less than 1% of the population. Vaccinations of elderly people are to start next week and the rest will likely have to wait until around July.