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Japan Inches Toward Declaring Emergency to Stem Fresh Virus Wave

Yuko Takeo and Isabel Reynolds

(Bloomberg) --

Japan moved closer toward declaring a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic as new cases increased in Tokyo and Health Minister Katsunobu Kato warned of a high risk that infections will become rampant.

The government will set up a panel Thursday to advise Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on whether to trigger a law passed earlier in the month, which would give local governments more powers to restrict the activities of residents. Up until now, Japan has been one of the least-affected by the virus among developed nations, but there are worries that could soon change.

“The prime minister instructed me to move ahead quickly with the establishment of the panel,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo. He added that the government wasn’t thinking of calling an emergency at this point.

The move comes after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked residents to stay indoors this weekend amid a jump in cases and surrounding areas have either followed suit or were expected to do so, which could affect more than 30 million people in total.

“This is an extremely important time for avoiding a sudden spread of the infection,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters, adding that he supported the steps taken in Tokyo.

Virus cases in the capital jumped on Wednesday with 41 newly confirmed infected people, Koike said, a surge in a city that until now has mostly escaped the pandemic. The capital is in a “critical moment” over a potential explosion in cases, she said, and asked that residents work from home and not go out on weekday nights.

“Unfortunately the situation is worsening,” Koike said Wednesday.

The request from the governor appears to have punctured the relaxed mood in Tokyo. “Panic buying” began to trend on Twitter, with users posting pictures of empty shelves and lines outside supermarkets. At the Don Quijote supermarket in Nakameguro on Wednesday, customers flocked to grab instant noodles and canned goods in the minutes immediately following Koike’s late-evening speech.

Suga urged people to act calmly, saying he was aware of the shortages. He said the government would work closely with retailers and take action if necessary.

The governor of Kanagawa asked residents to refrain from travel to neighboring Tokyo this weekend. Other neighbors Saitama and Chiba prefectures will soon follow suit, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

Tokyo has begun to see an up-tick in cases during the past three days, with 16 people confirmed to be infected on Monday followed by 17 on Tuesday. The latest spike makes Wednesday the worst single day of infections found in the city, bringing the tally to 212 among a population of almost 14 million.

Tokyo now has the most cases of any prefecture in Japan. Koike earlier this week she it was possible the city might yet have to implement a lockdown to control the virus. “The next three weeks are an extremely important turning point to see if there is an ‘overshoot’ of cases,” she said.

Japan identified its first virus case as early as Jan. 16, and took measures that in late February led to schools being closed, events called off and theme parks shut. Government experts had until this week said the country so far has avoided the type of “explosive” surge in cases that has locked down much of Europe and the U.S.

A combination of warm weather, a national holiday and the blooming of the country’s famed cherry blossoms brought crowds out in Tokyo over a three-day period from last weekend, and may have led to an increase in infections.

The staging of a K-1 martial arts event with thousands of spectators in Saitama prefecture last weekend sparked alarm. While officials asked organizers to call it off, they had no legal power to prevent it, and it went ahead.

One member of the government’s expert panel on the outbreak said on a Sunday program on public broadcaster NHK that he was concerned about the mismatch in perceptions between the public and specialists.

Life in Japan had begun to return to normal, with some schools re-opening to hold end-of-term ceremonies this week and even some amusement parks welcoming visitors.

“Everyone thinks it’s calmed down in Japan, and there’s a big gap between that and how we feel,” said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University. “That’s what makes the coronavirus extremely difficult.”

(Recasts with move toward emergency declaration)

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