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Tokyo Games may go without fans as Japan declares emergency

State of emergency was unlikely to trigger a cancellation of the games as COVID-19 surges
A group of students from Uruguay pose for a souvenir picture on the Olympic Rings set outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Saturday, March 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Tokyo looked set to stage an unprecedented Olympics largely without spectators, as a fresh coronavirus surge prompted a new state of emergency and dealt another blow to an event once billed as proof the world has defeated the pandemic.

Fans were expected to be excluded from all events in Tokyo and the surrounding areas, the Asahi newspaper and other media said, citing unidentified officials, just as the government announced it would place the city under a state of emergency. International Olympic Committee Chief Thomas Bach landed in Tokyo Thursday and was scheduled to meet with organizers and Japanese government representatives to make the official decision.

The state of emergency was unlikely to trigger a cancellation of the games, set to run from July 23 to Aug. 8, with officials from the organizing committee having said previously that they’re prepared to hold events without spectators if necessary. Still, empty stadiums would be added to scandals, cost over-runs, delays and virus controls in undermining the event’s purpose of allowing a modernized Japan to take the spotlight.

“It will be an unusual way of staging the event amid a state of emergency,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a press conference adding that billions of people were expected to watch it on television. “I want to show from Tokyo that the human race can overcome great difficulty through hard work and wisdom.”

The return to emergency represents a political setback for Suga, who has resisted canceling the games despite opposition from much of the Japanese public. The 72-year-old premier, who faces a ruling party leadership election and a general election in the coming months, lifted the Tokyo emergency in June, despite warnings that doing so without more vaccinations could contribute to just the sort of surge the capital is now seeing.

Suga said at a task force meeting earlier that Tokyo would be placed under an emergency declaration through Aug. 22, after virus cases in Tokyo leaped to 920 Wednesday — the highest since May 13. Another 896 cases were recorded in the capital Thursday.

He added that vaccinations were beginning to show an effect and the emergency could be ended ahead of time if the situation improves.

Daily infections have been on the rise since the city ended its third state of emergency on June 20, while only about 15% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated.​ The capital accounts for about a fifth of national economic output.

Olympic organizers had decided late last month to cap spectators at 10,000 per venue or 50% of venue capacity, whichever is smaller. The government had recently been considering cutting that to 5,000 spectators per venue, according to domestic media reports.

The government’s top COVID-19 adviser has repeatedly said it would be preferable to hold the games without spectators and scale back attendance by other people connected to the event, who are not classified as spectators.

A ban on serving alcohol at bars and restaurants in Tokyo will be reimposed, virus policy czar Yasutoshi Nishimura said, adding that he was considering speeding up subsidies for affected businesses.

With fans likely to be banned from the bulk of Olympic events, alcohol restricted and authorities calling on the public to stay at home, hopes that the games might mark a psychological turning point toward post-COVID life are all but extinguished.

Although Japan has fared far better than other rich nations in keeping infection numbers low, the nation’s vaccination drive got off to a slow start and after accelerating rapidly it’s now facing localized distribution issues. Opinion polls show voters are critical of Suga’s handling of both the virus and the vaccination program.

Nishimura told reporters that if vaccinations continue to go smoothly, the country could reach Europe’s current levels of coverage by the end of the emergency. At the moment, however, he expressed concern about the spread of newer strains of the virus.

“New infections are continuing to rise,” Nishimura said, in explaining the emergency. “People are moving around more and the delta variant, which is highly infectious, is accounting for about 30% of cases.”

—Isabel Reynolds, Bloomberg News

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