By Rocky Swift
TOKYO (Reuters) - An expert panel guiding Japan's coronavirus response is due to recommend on Thursday that some schools can reopen though mass gatherings that could reignite the coronavirus outbreak should still be avoided.
The infectious disease experts will recommend at a meeting that areas of Japan with low numbers of coronavirus cases can consider resuming classes and sporting events, said Koji Wada, a member of the panel.
"There are some areas where almost all the patients have been identified in the past two weeks," Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, told Reuters.
"So in those areas, it's OK to reopen schools, even now."
Japan has had 923 coronavirus cases and 32 deaths, according to the latest tally from state broadcaster NHK. Among Japan's 47 prefectures, 22 have had fewer than five cases, according to health ministry data.
In a request that shocked the country, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration asked schools to close in March to stem the outbreak.
As Japan heads into a three-day weekend, typically marked by cherry-blossom viewing parties, the panel will recommend that people refrain from getting together in big groups, Wada said.
"We are going to continue that request," he said.
The eyes of the world are on Japan to see if it will step back from its determination to press ahead with the Summer Olympics.
Organisers have repeatedly said the July 24 to Aug. 9 Games will go on as scheduled but with the rapid spread of the coronavirus bringing the sports world to a virtual standstill, fears are growing the Olympics may be cancelled or postponed.
The governor of Hokkaido, the prefecture with the highest number of infections, said his administration was scaling back its response to the outbreak, ending the emergency on Thursday to move to a new phase.
"We will end the emergency declaration as scheduled on March 19 and from the 20th move to a new stage to overcome the crisis," Hokkaido governor Naomichi Suzuki told reporters.
Hokkaido had seen 154 infections as of Wednesday.
The virus has infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,700 globally with the most serious spread now taking place in Europe as China, where the virus originated late last year, has succeeding in bringing its epidemic under control.
The United States and most of Europe have enacted travel bans and put major cities on lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
Japan has closed schools and cancelled many sporting events, but has refrained from putting firm restrictions on travel, businesses and restaurants.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would listen to what the expert panel says before deciding what to do about school and public events.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher and Rocky Swift; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)