Prefectures split over whether to keep the booze flowing as coronavirus cases surge

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, center, talks with officials after a meeting at the Tokyo metropolitan government building on Wednesday.

Local governments that will be subject to quasi-emergency priority measures designed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are split over whether to allow eateries to continue serving alcohol when the measures start on Friday in 13 more prefectures, including Tokyo.

On Wednesday, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike urged eateries to comply with the measures.

“It pains me that [businesses] had to put up with burdens for such a long time, but I sincerely ask for their cooperation once again to overcome this difficult situation,” Koike said after a meeting with Tokyo’s pandemic task force.

Amid a surge in cases in the capital, the occupancy rate of hospital beds allocated for COVID-19 patients in Tokyo has climbed. On Monday, the rate exceeded 20%, which the metropolitan government had set as the threshold for requesting quasi-emergency priority measures. The following day, senior officials of an organization representing restaurant operators and other businesses in Tokyo met with Koike at the metropolitan government building.

The officials pressed her to allow restaurants to continue serving alcohol, saying that failure to do so would be “fatal” for many businesses. “Many operators will start talking about closing their doors or going out of business,” one of the officials reportedly said.

According to the metropolitan government, figures released on Jan. 13 indicated that 49.4% of COVID-19 patients in Tokyo had become infected through a family member, and 14.5% had caught the virus while dining out.

As of Jan. 14, almost 90% of Tokyo’s restaurants and bars had received official certification for their infection prevention measures — 106,256 of the about 120,000 establishments in the capital.

The metropolitan government is asking them to stop serving alcohol by 8 p.m. and to close by 9 p.m. During the states of emergency that were in place from April to June and from July to September last year, the metropolitan government asked eateries that serve alcohol to close, which triggered a barrage of criticism.

“It seems the governor’s greatest fear was that the economy would grind to a halt again,” a senior metropolitan government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The metropolitan government’s decision was complicated by the fact that an increasing number of infections have been linked to dining establishments.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 65 infection clusters were confirmed at restaurants and bars between Jan. 11 and 16. This eclipsed the previous high of 62 clusters recorded over a one-week period during the pandemic’s fifth wave in late July.

The prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Mie are split over their approach to alcohol at eateries. Aichi and Mie prefectures will allow certified establishments to keep the taps flowing, but Gifu has decided to ask all restaurants and bars in the prefecture to stop serving alcohol.

“We must act with utmost urgency,” Gifu Gov. Hajime Furuta said.

On Wednesday, Gifu Prefecture logged a record-high 461 new coronavirus cases. On Jan. 5, just 2% of hospital beds in the prefecture for COVID-19 patients were occupied, but this figure had jumped to 27.6% by Tuesday.

“We know that people talk loudly when they dine in large groups, which increases the risk of infection, so strengthening measures at restaurants and bars is an effective way to stop the spread of the virus,” said Kaori Muto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science and a member of the government’s subcommittee on pandemic measures.

“Regardless of whether alcohol is consumed, the important thing is to avoid dining in large groups.”