By Naomi Tajitsu and Kaori Kaneko
TOKYO, May 8 (Reuters) – As Japan prepares to ease coronavirus restrictions in some parts of the country, a growing number of the country’s businesses are planning to resume operations despite concerns that isolation guidelines were being lifted too early.
After a monthlong shutdown brought economic activity to a grinding halt, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Friday that the government was looking at ways to bring some parts of the country out of lockdown measures as the rate of infections has slowed in several outlying regions.
“The number of new infections of the coronavirus is significantly falling,” he told reporters. “There are more prefectures with no new coronavirus cases, so lifting the state of emergency is within sight.”
After lockdown measures led to a record contraction of Japan’s services sector last month, businesses including cafes, bars and sports clubs have been resuming operations even as the coronavirus epidemic has sapped demand.
Casual clothing chain Uniqlo reopened 48 stores in Japan on Thursday, including several large stores in Tokyo and Osaka, said its owner, Fast Retailing, while Aeon Co, the region’s biggest supermarket operator, said it was reopening its Aeon Mall shopping centres.
A queue of more than 100 people snaked in front of Tokyo’s famed Kinokuniya book store in the Shinjuku district when it reopened on Thursday for the first time in three weeks, local media reported, with most customers waiting to purchase the latest manual for the video game “Animal Crossing.”
But Tokyo Disneyland operator Oriental Land on Friday said that the park, one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, would remain closed through May amid the state of emergency in the city and neighbouring Chiba Prefecture.
Japan this week extended its nationwide state of emergency but said it would reassess the situation on May 14 and possibly lift the measures earlier for some prefectures.
So far, 27 of Japan’s 47 prefectures have lifted some or all requests for residents to remain indoors as much as possible, or are planning to do so in the coming days.
About 15,500 coronavirus infections and 590 deaths have been confirmed in the country as of Friday.
Businesses were permitted to reopen in Iwate Prefecture in the country’s northeast, which has yet to report any infections, but some local shop owners were wary of resuming normal operations.
“It feels like it’s too early to reopen. People have done a good job of keeping infections in the prefecture at zero,” said Mana Takahashi, owner of Clammbon cafe in Morioka City in the prefecture, who has been relying on coffee bean sales for revenue since closing the cafe’s dining area in April.
“It would be unfortunate for an infection to occur just as rules are being loosened,” she added, adding that the streets outside her shop have remained largely empty even after the shutdown request was lifted.
Across town, sports clubs and karaoke bars were opening for the first time in weeks.
“We’ve had a few groups of students, and also single customers have come in so far,” said an employee at a karaoke bar shortly after it reopened at noon on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not permitted to speak with media. “We’re expecting our regulars back tonight.”
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Naomi Tajitsu; additional reporting by Ritusko Ando Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Gerry Doyle)