TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and four other remaining areas on Monday, ending the restrictions nationwide as businesses begin to reopen.
Experts on a government-commissioned panel approved the lifting of the emergency in Tokyo, neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, and in Hokkaido to the north, which had more cases and remained under the emergency declaration after it was removed in most of Japan earlier this month.
Abe said the lifting of the emergency does not mean the end of the outbreak. He said the goal is to balance preventive measure and the economy until vaccines and effective drugs become available.
Japan, with about 16,600 confirmed cases and about 850 deaths, has so far avoided a large outbreak like those experienced in the U.S. and the Europe despite its softer restrictions.
But the world’s third largest economy is fallen into a recession, and public discontent over Abe’s handling of the coronavirus has sent his support ratings tumbling. Recent media surveys show public support for his Cabinet has plunged below 30%, the lowest since he returned to office in December 2012.
Abe declared the state of emergency on April 7 in several parts of Japan including Tokyo, expanded it to the entire nation later in the month, and then extended it until the end of May.
Under the emergency, people were asked to stay at home and non-essential businesses were requested to close or reduce operations, but there was no enforcement. Since May 14, when the measures were lifted in most of Japan, more people have left their homes and stores have begun reopening.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said recent data suggest that infections have slowed enough and pressure on the medical system has fallen enough to allow a gradual resumption of social and economic activity. He said Tokyo, Kanagawa and Hokkaido, where the number of infections is still fluctuating, need to be watched closely.
On Monday, Matsuya department store, a landmark in Tokyo’s posh Ginza shopping district, resumed operation. Sales staff wearing plastic face shields welcomed customers with bows but no verbal greetings under new guidelines.
Individual prefectures are allowed to impose their own measures. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said last week that the capital will reopen in three phases starting with schools, libraries, museums, and longer service hours for restaurants. She said theaters, sports facilities and other commercial establishments will be next, with nightclubs, karaoke and live music houses in the final phase.
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi