• Kyodo

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Torchbearers for this summer's Tokyo Olympics ran through an empty park in Osaka Prefecture on Tuesday, after the flame relay was rerouted from public roads due to a sharp rebound in COVID-19 infections.

A day before the 100-day milestone ahead of the opening of the Olympics, Osaka — a metropolis recently hit by record daily numbers of new infections — became the first prefecture in Japan to give up on holding the relay in its planned format.

On Tuesday, Osaka Prefecture reported a record 1,099 new COVID-19 cases, topping 1,000 for the first time and breaking the previous record of 918 cases confirmed on Saturday.

Osaka and the wider Kansai area have seen a surge in the number of people infected with highly contagious variants of the virus.

Osaka, along with Tokyo and some other areas, recently imposed tougher measures to control the spread of the virus including asking restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m. under a quasi-state of emergency.

In the torch relay, runners carried the flame for about 200 meters in the Expo '70 Commemorative Park in the city of Suita in the prefecture, which was closed to the public, instead of on public roads where large crowds could have gathered.

Each was allowed to invite up to four people to watch, including family. More than 100 torchbearers are scheduled to run over two days at the park in Osaka, the 10th prefecture that the flame has visited since the start of the relay on March 25.

Last week, the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games decided not to run the relay along public roads in Osaka after the prefectural government declared a medical state of emergency over the virus and asked residents to refrain from nonessential outings.

While the organizing committee has said the format of the event may change due to the pandemic situation, the need to cancel the relay on public roads in the prefecture adds to skepticism over whether the Olympics can go ahead this summer.

The flame was originally scheduled to pass through more than 15 municipalities and popular tourist spots including Osaka Castle Park before the end of the prefecture's leg on Wednesday.

The 121-day torch relay, which is set to involve around 10,000 runners, has been held with a number of anti-virus steps in place.

However, according to a Kyodo News survey conducted between Saturday and Monday, only 13.2% of those polled said the relay should continue until it passes through all the nation's 47 prefectures before the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23.

Of the respondents, 49.3% said the relay should be canceled in areas experiencing severe virus infection numbers and 35.9% said it should be called off entirely.

The Tokyo Olympics were postponed in March last year due to the global health crisis, just two days before the nationwide torch relay was scheduled to begin.

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