• Kyodo, Jiji

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As a fourth wave of coronavirus infections are spreading beyond the populous Tokyo and Osaka areas, the Tokyo Olympic torch relay has been forced to scale down in multiple venues by taking the relay off public roads.

On Monday, Hyogo, Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures announced the cancellations of their legs of the Tokyo Olympics torch relay on local public roads due to the continuing spread of the coronavirus.

The decisions by the three prefectures come after a series of similar moves by Osaka and Fukuoka prefectures, as well as parts of Okinawa, Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Ehime prefectures.

The Olympic flame was slated to travel to Hiroshima on May 17 and 18, Okayama on May 19-20 and Hyogo on May 23 and 24.

"It is very unfortunate, but we concluded that conducting the relay on public roads in our prefecture would be impossible," Okayama Gov. Ryuta Ibaragi told reporters.

Most of the mayors of the 12 Okayama municipalities the Olympic flame was slated to pass through agreed with the prefectural government's decision on the cancellation. "It is regrettable that we effectively won't be able to host the torch relay, but the decision was unavoidable in view of the current (coronavirus) situation," Ibaragi said.

In Okayama Prefecture, the occupancy rate for hospital beds for coronavirus patients stood at 71.6% as of Sunday, exceeding the level for Stage 4, the worst on the country's four-tier coronavirus alert system.

The prefecture is currently in talks with the central government to seek a quasi-emergency designation.

Announcing the cancellation at a news conference, Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said: "The torch relay had been a symbol representing local residents' expectations for the Olympics. The cancellation is regrettable."

The Hyogo Prefectural Government made the decision after the central government decided late last week to extend the current coronavirus state of emergency for Hyogo and some other prefectures until the end of May.

Hyogo will consider a substitute event in which torchbearers will run in areas at Himeji Castle in the city of Himeji and at former Sasayama Castle in the city of Tamba-Sasayama without allowing spectators.

"Not conducting the torch relay on public roads is the right thing at a time when we are asking residents to refrain from going out," Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki said at a news conference.

Yamaguchi Prefecture decided to cancel the first day of the relay in the prefecture Thursday, as a series of coronavirus infection clusters have occurred in municipalities that were slated to host the event on the day. The relay in the prefecture will take place as scheduled on Friday.

When Osaka Prefecture decided to take the relay off the public roads, torchbearers ran laps in an empty park instead.

An official of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee said it cannot be helped but to respect governors' decisions. "On top of the worsening situation over infections, governors must be looking at what neighboring prefectures are doing," the official said. "We would like to come up with some kind of alternative measures."

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