Japan has further expanded a coronavirus state of emergency, currently in Tokyo and five other prefectures, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga repeated his determination to hold the Olympics in just over two months.
The country has been struggling to slow the infections ahead of the Games.
The three additions include Japan’s northern island state of Hokkaido, where the Olympic marathon will be held, as well as Hiroshima and Okayama in western Japan.
Despite the worsening infections, Mr Suga stressed his commitment to holding the Games safely and securely while protecting Japanese by strictly controlling the movements of foreign participants, including possibly expelling journalists covering the event if they defy regulations.
“I understand there are various difficulties, but the priority is to stop the further spread of infections and protect the people’s lives and health,” Mr Suga said.
The three additional areas will join Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures already under the coronavirus restrictions, until May 31, Mr Suga announced at a government taskforce meeting.
Bars, karaoke parlours and most entertainment facilities are required to close.
Business owners who comply will be compensated; those who do not could face fines.
“Infections are escalating extremely rapidly in populated areas,” Mr Suga said while explaining the decision.
It was the second expansion of the emergency in just one week.
Mr Suga declared a state of emergency – Japan’s third – in four prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka starting on April 25, then expanded it to six prefectures last Friday.
Despite the emergency measures, infections are continuing to spread in wider areas of Japan instead of slowing.
Mr Suga said he will decide on a possible further extension by evaluating the virus situation at the end of May.
His government is under heavy pressure from the public, who are increasingly frustrated by the slow vaccine rollout and repeated emergency declarations.
Many now oppose hosting the Olympics from July 23-August 8, and people appear to be less co-operative with stay-at-home and social distancing requests that are not compulsory anyway.
Less than 2% of the public has been fully vaccinated.
The expansion of the state of emergency is a major shift from the government’s initial plan that relied on less stringent measures that were deemed insufficient.
The addition of Hiroshima to areas covered by emergency measures comes just days after Japanese organisers announced that International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach’s trip originally scheduled for next week to mark the Hiroshima leg of the torch relay has been cancelled.
Earlier on Friday, organisers of a petition demanding the cancellation of the Olympics submitted to Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike more than 350,000 signatures collected since early May.
The petition says money spent on the Games should be better used on people in financial need because of the pandemic.
On Thursday, Japan reported 6,800 new confirmed cases, adding to its total of 665,547 with 11,255 deaths.