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Japan widens restrictions as Omicron surges

TOKYO (AP) – Restaurants will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan beginning yesterday as the country widens COVID-19 restrictions due to the Omicron variant, which has caused cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.

The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last through February 13. With three other prefectures – Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi – under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third of the country.

While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry yesterday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged five to 11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.

Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focussed on requiring eateries to close early, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimise damage to the economy.

Under the latest measures, most eateries are asked to close by 8pm or 9pm, while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In Tokyo, certified eateries can stay open until 9pm.

Restaurants that close at 9pm receive JPY30,000 per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8pm get JPY25,000 per day.

Critics said the measures, which almost exclusively target restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.

Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on eateries, noting that infections show no signs of slowing in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks.

People walk along a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. PHOTO: AP
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