Japan's snow town Hokkaido turns into hotbed of coronavirus cases

A man in Sapporo Odori Park in Hokkaido, Japan, on Feb 26, 2020. Hokkaido has Japan's highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases outside Tokyo, PHOTO: REUTERS

SAPPORO (REUTERS) - Children played in the snow without masks on Wednesday (Feb 26) but Japan's coldest prefecture has become a hotbed of coronavirus infections, shutting schools, raising fears about the Summer Olympics and halting tours of a whisky distillery.

Hokkaido, the northernmost island famous for its mountains and brown bears, has Japan's highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases outside Tokyo, with 38 infections and one death, and residents are nervous.

"I would feel so much better if my son could test for the coronavirus like the regular flu," said Ms Naoko Maeda, whose 16-year-old son has a runny nose, adding that she had seen shops run out of masks and disinfectants.

"I do think the government response was too late. On top of that we don't have much information either, and now it's come to this and I feel a bit panicky."

Japan had more than 180 cases of coronavirus infections as of Wednesday, apart from 691 reported from a cruise ship that was quarantined off Tokyo earlier this month.

Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki asked all public schools to close from Thursday through to March 4.

"This is an unprecedented case and there may be criticism that we are going overboard. But I will bear the responsibility and would like to ask for the public's understanding and cooperation," he told reporters.

Sapporo, the picturesque capital of the province which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972, is due to hold marathons and walking races during the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the outbreak has raised questions about whether they will go ahead.

"I'm not in a position to decide whether to hold the Olympics or not," Mr Yoshiharu Fujita, director of local government's School Health and Athletics Division, told Reuters. "But I really want people around the world to come to Hokkaido for a great experience."

Ms Mei Isikawa, manager of Sapporo's tourism department, said 130,000 foreigners had cancelled trips to Sapporo in February and March.

The Yoichi whisky factory has suspended tours and a street famous for its ramen noodles, popular with tourists and locals alike, was nearly empty.

"We know that this virus will only spread even more," said the mother of a seven-year-old elementary school student, who asked not to be identified.

"It's probably come to a point where there's no stopping it."

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