The government hastily withdrew plans to pressure restaurants not to serve alcohol during COVID-19 states of emergency, via lenders and liquor suppliers, but the controversy shows how it has been relying on impromptu steps in the absence of an adequate legal framework for addressing pandemics, experts have said.

The blunder by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration is also said to expose the limits of a request-based approach to having businesses restrict their operations a year and a half into the health crisis.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s virus response, ignited the controversy at a press conference on July 8, the day the government decided to place Tokyo under its fourth COVID-19 state of emergency, effective from July 12 through Aug. 22.

With signs that fewer restaurants were willing to follow the government’s calls for virus-related restrictions, he appeared to ask banks to play enforcer.

“By sharing information with financial institutions, we’ll ask them to urge unwilling establishments to comply with” measures, Nishimura said.

Under the coronavirus emergency now covering the capital and Okinawa Prefecture, restaurants and bars are ostensibly prohibited from serving alcohol and required to close their doors by 8 p.m.

“I think the administration assumed that the tougher the steps it took against restaurants and bars, the more the media and public opinion would welcome them as thorough virus countermeasures,” said Yasuyuki Iida, an associate professor at Meiji University.

Instead, members of both ruling and opposition parties were quick to criticize the proposal, and the government was forced to retract the plan the following day.

A customer drinks sake at a bar in Tokyo on June 21, following a slight easing of COVID-19 restrictions. | KYODO
A customer drinks sake at a bar in Tokyo on June 21, following a slight easing of COVID-19 restrictions. | KYODO

In the entertainment district of Shibuya in Tokyo, a wine bar owner who had already decided to keep serving alcohol under the latest state of emergency said Nishimura’s remarks had likely just put even more establishments off complying with the alcohol ban as they try to stay afloat.

“I can get monetary compensation of only 40% of sales, which is too little to cover fixed costs such as rent,” said the owner, 50, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I know restaurants and bars should cooperate (with the government), but the compensation is totally unfair.”

Nishimura’s remark “really rubbed us up the wrong way, and proved that they can’t understand how we feel,” the owner added, saying that he had heard from others in the same business that the comment had prompted them to decide not to comply with government requests any longer.

Iida, an expert in economic policy, said that if banks did refuse loans to businesses — in line with what Nishimura appeared to be proposing — it could be regarded as an abuse of a dominant bargaining position and thus violate the anti-monopoly law. Such a request by the government could also threaten the freedom of business activities, he added.

Banks likely shied away from the idea of taking any such action, so the measure was never going to be effective, Iida said.

But “Suga’s administration probably gave priority to being portrayed as being strict in dealing with the virus, rather than being effective. It was erratic policymaking and just political grandstanding.”

At the same time as making the call on banks, Nishimura also outlined another plan to ask beverage wholesalers to stop supplying liquor to eateries during the virus emergency.

At first, the government stood by it. But in the end, protests from an industry group of retail liquor shops — and concerns over the impact of the uproar within Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party ahead of a general election that must be held by November — led to the request being abandoned on July 13.

Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University College of Risk Management, said that legal frameworks for crisis response should be hammered out “in ordinary times, after thorough discussion,” slamming both measures proposed by Nishimura for their lack of legal basis.

“Making laws in the midst of a crisis could be really dangerous because they tend to be crafted under a logic that justifies infringing private and human rights,” said Fukuda, an expert on risk management. He added that the government had appeared to be in the grip of that kind of mindset when Nishimura made his proposals.

Since its first COVID-19 emergency last spring, which disrupted many social and economic activities, Japan has refrained from going into the kind of hard lockdown some major cities around the world have imposed. Instead it has largely relied on the voluntary cooperation of the public and businesses, with steps mainly focused on restricting the operations of eateries.

But with each virus emergency, more such establishments are flouting the requests.

“Instead of putting efforts into crisis management such as securing enough beds for (COVID-19) patients, what the government has done so far is all about requiring people to have patience, so it’s natural for the government to lose peoples’ trust,” said Fukuda.

“Request-based measures work well when the government has gained public confidence, but the emergency has been repeated as many as four times,” he added. “The latest development has exposed the limits of such an approach.”

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