TOKYO – Japan fully came out of a coronavirus state of emergency for the first time in more than six months as the country starts to gradually ease virus measures to help rejuvenate the pandemic-hit economy as the infections slowed.
At Tokyo’s busy Shinagawa train station, a sea of mask-wearing commuters rushed to their work despite an approaching typhoon, with some returning to their offices after months of remote work.
The emergency measures, in place for more than half of the country including Tokyo, ended Thursday following a steady fall in new caseloads over the past few weeks, helping to ease pressure on Japanese health care systems.
Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga thanked the people for their patience and cooperation, and asked them to stick to their basic anti-virus measures.
“Once again, I seek your cooperation so that we can return to our daily lives feeling safe,” he said.
The lifting of the emergency marked a fresh start for some people.
Office worker Akifumi Sugihara, 46, said he is back to the train station for the first time in about a year. “I had been working from home for more than a year, and I came to the office in Tokyo as (the emergency) was lifted today," he said. "It’s really been a while. I feel it’s a new start.”
Another office worker, Kaori Hayashi, 37, said it was an ordinary Friday. “In my mind nothing really has changed," she said. "We still need to be careful. I will stay vigilant and carry on my life as usual.”
Japan is eager to expand social and economic activities while balancing the need to prevent another wave of infections as the weather turns cooler. Officials say the government still needs time to create more temporary COVID-19 treatment facilities and continue vaccinations to prepare for any future resurgence.
The emergency measures have mainly involved requests for eateries to curb alcohol and hours. They can now serve alcohol and operate an hour longer but still have to close at 9 p.m.
Daily reported cases have fallen to below 1,600 as of Wednesday nationwide — less than one-tenth of the mid-August peak of around 25,000. Experts attributed the declining numbers to the progress of vaccinations and to people increased their social distancing efforts after being alarmed by the collapse of medical systems during the summer.
Nearly more than 59% of Japanese people have been fully vaccinated. Japan has had about 1.69 million cases and 17,641 deaths from COVID-19.
Associated Press journalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.