TOKYO (UPDATE) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended Monday the nationwide state of emergency until the end of May to reduce new coronavirus infections amid nascent signs of the epidemic leveling off.
Abe made the announcement at a meeting of a government task force on the coronavirus response after an advisory panel concluded the extension was appropriate. The state of emergency was initially set to expire Wednesday, the last day of the Golden Week holiday period in Japan.
"I will extend the state of emergency I declared on April 7 to May 31. All prefectures are subject to it and there is no change to the emergency framework," Abe said during the task force meeting.
"The one-month period is designed for us to prepare for the next step and put an end to the state of emergency," Abe said, adding that the battle against COVID-19 could be protracted.
He repeated his calls for people to refrain from crossing prefectural borders and reduce person-to-person contact by 80 percent in 13 prefectures such as Tokyo and Osaka that require "special caution."
The extension comes as the medical system has been stretched thin by rising cases and economic activity depressed due to stay-at-home and business closure requests under the emergency declaration.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told parliament that the number of newly reported cases has been on a downward trend but the pace of decline is not fast enough.
"We need to see a further reduction in new cases," Nishimura told a lower house session as he explained the government's plan to lawmakers.
While the state of emergency remains in force nationwide, some of the current constraints on social and economic activities will be eased in prefectures where the infection situation does not need special caution.
The reopening of parks, libraries and museums, meanwhile, will likely be permitted across the country on condition that preventive steps against the virus are taken.
Abe said experts will make a fresh assessment around May 14 and the state of emergency could be lifted for some areas before May 31 if the situation allows.
Abe laid the groundwork for the extension last week, saying a return to normalcy would not come soon.
The government panel of medical experts recommended Friday that the emergency steps be kept in place for a while to prevent a surge in new COVID-19 infections that would put an additional strain on hospitals.
Abe declared a monthlong state of emergency on April 7 for seven prefectures covering urban areas including Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. He expanded it to the entire nation on April 16 to pre-empt an expected increase in travel during the roughly weeklong holiday period when many Japanese normally visit their hometowns or go on trips.
To mitigate the damage done to households, he timed the announcement with a pledge to provide each of Japan's some 126 million people with 100,000 yen ($930) to help ride out the emergency situation.
Currently, the seven prefectures first targeted for the state of emergency are among 13 prefectures designated by the government as needing special caution.
Japan has confirmed over 15,000 coronavirus cases with about 550 deaths.
The government has been calling for a cut of as much as 80 percent in person-to-person contact and a 70 percent reduction in commuting. Crowds and the movement of people have decreased but hitting the targets has proven difficult, according to recent data.
Grocery shopping, hospital visits, as well as jogging and going for walks have been allowed under the state of emergency, which was declared based on a revised law enacted in March.
The law allows a state of emergency to be announced when it is feared the country's capacity to provide medical care will reach its limit unless measures are taken.
The declaration gives prefectural governors the authority to expropriate private land and buildings to provide medical care.
They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply.
But stay-at-home and business suspension requests are not mandatory and there are no legal penalties for noncompliance with them.
Still, prefectural governors have urged Abe to extend the emergency declaration, even though its limits have become clear.
Some governors recently released the names of pachinko parlors that defied their closure requests.