Penalties for Noncompliant Businesses Central to New Virus Measures

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A meeting of the ruling parties’ task force on coronavirus measures is held Tuesday at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters.

Business operators that do not comply with requests such as shortening their business hours may be penalized as part of efforts to strengthen measures against the novel coronavirus. The government is discussing with the ruling and opposition parties the final details of a bill to revise the special measures law to cope with new strains of influenza, which will be submitted to the Diet session beginning Monday.

■ The first move

At a meeting Tuesday of the novel coronavirus measures task force of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito, the government distributed a document titled, “The direction of the revision on the law on special measures against new strains of influenza.” A government official explained that prefectural governors will be able to “order” business operators to close or to shorten their operating hours, and that penalties will be imposed on noncompliant businesses. Many lawmakers in attendance agreed to the policy, with one saying, “We need a penalty to ensure the effectiveness of the measure.”

The government’s previous measures have been based on the assumption that people and businesses will cooperate. However, people have become tired and the government has not received the expected cooperation. Facing a major turning point in fighting this infectious disease, the government has started focusing on something more binding.

Initially, the government said it would revise the special measures law after the outbreak is brought under control, but there is no prospect of it abating. The government has no choice but to start discussing the revision even as the virus continues to spread.

The plan is to enact the revised law in early February and implement it after about a 10-day period, meaning the new measures will go into force as soon as possible.

At Tuesday’s meeting, it was proposed that a governor will be able to take what was tentatively called a “preventive measure” before a state of emergency is declared. This will enable a governor to order or request certain businesses to shorten their hours. In addition, the prime minister can instruct a governor to implement the preventive measure if it is deemed necessary. This is aimed at taking action in advance, as the government’s measures against the virus have been criticized as being one step behind.

■ Lawmakers’ bill

The government plans to make penalties for noncompliant businesses administrative rather than criminal penalties, as the latter remain on a criminal record. A fine of up to ¥500,000 is under discussion. In the Health Promotion Law, for example, a fine of up to ¥500,000 is imposed on businesses that fail to take necessary measures to prevent passive smoking.

However, the government has not presented specific details of the penalties at the liaison council of the government and the ruling and opposition parties, which is discussing the revision. Nor were they disclosed at Tuesday’s meeting of the ruling parties.

As the revision will place restrictions on private rights, the government will try to build a consensus after thoroughly discussing with the ruling and opposition parties.

“This revision will be submitted by the Cabinet, but in reality it is a lawmakers’ bill,” a senior government official said.

Apart from the Communist Party, the opposition parties are ready to approve of penalties on the premise that compliant businesses will be appropriately compensated.

The government has increased the subsidies provided to restaurants that comply with the request to shorten business hours from ¥40,000 to ¥60,000 per day, in conjunction with the latest state of emergency declaration.

Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said that the party “does not reject penalties altogether,” but added that ¥60,000 was still not enough for most businesses to break even.

■ Supporting businesses

The revision states that the central and prefectural governments will provide support measures for businesses. Reflecting a strong request from governors, it is aimed at creating an environment in which businesses are more likely to comply with requests to limit their operations.

The government’s support is expected to be money for cooperation, rather than the compensation urged by opposition parties, which would be calculated based on sales. Compensation would require huge financial resources, and one government official said: “No country in the world is providing compensation. If the government tries to compensate for the sales of a luxury club in [Tokyo’s] Ginza district, the figure will go through the roof.”