As the novel coronavirus rages in Japan, Tokyo is having increasing difficulty in containing the movement of people in the capital, which has seen the highest number of infection cases nationwide.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who used her skill in crafting catchphrases to help contain the movement of people and keep infections low last summer, is finding her influence weakened as Tokyo residents disregard her calls to stay home.
Some in the metropolitan government admit that “it’s not enough to make requests.”
“I told people late last year, ‘Please don’t go back to your hometowns’ and ‘No end-of-the-year parties,’ but unfortunately we find ourselves in the current situation,” Koike said at a news conference Friday, expressing frustration over people acting against her requests.
Although the central government declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus soon after the start of the year, the daily number of newly confirmed infection cases remains mostly above 1,000 and shows no sign of going down.
In the first wave of coronavirus infections last spring, the metropolitan government called on a variety of businesses to suspend operations or shorten their hours. The move, in addition to Koike’s catchy use of the phrase “stay home,” caused infections to calm down by June.
In the second wave in summer, business-related measures were limited to requesting shorter operating hours for restaurants due to the huge toll the first-wave measures had on the economy. It was enough to end the surge in infections.
“This became a success story,” a senior metropolitan official said.
The general public began to let its guard down over the epidemic in October last year, after the central government added trips to and from Tokyo to its Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign.
Infection numbers, which had been largely flat, began to spike in November, prompting Tokyo to request restaurants to shorten their operating hours again.
The metropolitan government asked stores to close by 10 p.m., as it had in the previous wave last summer. Even after the government panel on the coronavirus crisis proposed that stores close by 8 p.m., Koike resisted, saying, “It isn’t clear whether they will cooperate if we make (the measures) stricter.”
But a further rise in the number of infection cases forced the governor to backpedal and ask stores to close earlier.
Koike had planned to walk around the Kabukicho entertainment district of the capital on Dec. 25 to call on people to step up coronavirus measures, but her visit was abruptly canceled.
“She may have determined that her performances can only go so far,” a person close to the governor said.
After Tokyo marked a record daily high of 1,337 infections on New Year’s Eve, Koike immediately contacted the governors of the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa. Then on Jan. 2, the four governors visited economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of the central government’s coronavirus responses, to urge a declaration of a coronavirus state of emergency under the special measures law on the fight against the virus.
The political blitz by Koike, which some saw as a successful effort to “win” the state of emergency from the government, can also be seen as the result of her being forced to act amid an unexpected surge in infections.
In spite of the emergency declaration, which is viewed as the government’s last line of defense against the coronavirus crisis, the flow of people far exceeds the level of last spring.
“Since we emphasized our request for stores to close by 8 p.m., young people began to think that it’s OK to walk around during the daytime,” a senior metropolitan government official said.
Koike herself has admitted that Tokyo’s measures have been too focused on shortening hours at restaurants, with infections continuing to surge at workplaces and home parties.
The daily number of new infection cases in Tokyo stood at 1,240 on Tuesday. In addition to securing more hospital beds for patients, the metropolitan government has introduced a series of measures to bolster its coronavirus policies, such as asking companies to boost adoption of teleworking, expanding its relief program for early closure requests to cover large companies and suspending its policy of making certain streets vehicle-free on some days.
Koike has said requesting business suspensions by restaurants is an option.
But any drastic policy measure is meaningless without broad support from the public.
“We the metropolitan government have done all we can that is new,” a senior official said. “Now, we must see whether it produces results.”
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