TOKYO: Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido declared a state of emergency on Friday (Feb 28) as the number of coronavirus cases rose, asking residents to stay indoors over the weekend.
"Hokkaido has been doing everything it can to contain the virus, but the crisis is deepening," Governor Naomichi Suzuki said at a televised news conference on Friday evening.
Suzuki declared a state-of-emergency through Mar 19.
"I believe it is necessary to take unprecedented, drastic steps," Suzuki told a televised meeting of local government executives.
Hokkaido region, known for ski resorts and vast forests, has seen at least 63 coronavirus cases, including two deaths, and accounts for more than a quarter of all cases in Japan, apart from those on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The central government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already dispatched a team of experts and officials to the region to contain the virus.
"I ask for help of all Hokkaido residents to protect lives and health of you and your loved ones and to ensure swift ending of the situation," the governor said.
"To prevent further spread of the virus, please refrain from going out during the weekend," he said.
The region's ski resorts attract many wealthy Asian tourists, including from China.
Suzuki has already asked for local schools to be closed, but he did not announce any further concrete measures to fight the outbreak.
The virus has so far infected more than 200 people across the country, including Hokkaido, and been linked to five deaths.
That number excludes more than 700 cases and five more deaths from the quarantined cruise liner Diamond Princess, docked in the port of Yokohama.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Thursday that he would ask primary, junior high and high schools to shut their doors for around a month, though nurseries and after-school clubs are exempt.
He has said that efforts in the coming weeks will determine whether the outbreak can be contained, a major concern in the run-up to Tokyo Olympics in July.
The abrupt step drew criticism, with health officials left scratching their heads and analysts saying the plan was politically motivated and made little sense. Local authorities also criticised the move and at least one prefecture and several cities rejected the request to close its schools.
"I'm going to have to babysit my grandkids every other day," business owner Mieko Hamada, 56, told Reuters on her way to their house in central Tokyo.
"My daughter works and can't look after them, and their babysitter also refused. It's utter chaos," she said, adding that while she had her own business to run she had no choice but to ask subordinates to cover for her.
Under intense questioning in parliament, Abe appeared to signal a willingness to soften the call for mass closures, saying it was merely the government's "basic thinking" and that schools and local authorities should "make their decisions flexibly."
He pledged to take policy steps as needed to prevent the outbreak from dealing a severe blow to Japan's fragile economic recovery. Earlier in the week, the government had already urged large gatherings, sports fixtures and cultural gatherings be scrapped or curtailed, but pledged the 2020 summer Olympic Games would go ahead in Tokyo.