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The Olympic Games will be held without spectators at venues in the capital and surrounding prefectures due to a rise in coronavirus infections, officials said Thursday, after organizers made the unprecedented decision just two weeks ahead of the opening of the event.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Thursday that in Tokyo — where quasi-emergency measures are in place — a state of emergency will take effect Monday and last until Aug. 22.

“New cases in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area have been rising since June,” Suga said. “Stronger measures have become necessary in those areas, but could be lifted early if we see evidence of the positive impact of the vaccine rollout.”

Meanwhile, the state of emergency was extended to mid-August for Okinawa Prefecture. Quasi-emergency measures will be extended for the same period in three of the capital’s neighboring prefectures — Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama — as well as Osaka, but will expire Sunday as planned in Hokkaido, Aichi, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures.

The ongoing state of emergency in Okinawa, as well as quasi-emergency measures in nine prefectures, were slated to expire Sunday.

Dining establishments in Tokyo and Okinawa will be asked to stop serving alcohol and to close by 8 p.m. Attendance at events, which had been limited to 10,000 people, will be capped at 5,000 or 50% of venue capacity — whichever figure is lower — and the events themselves will need to end by 9 p.m.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, economic revitalization and virus policy minister, speaks at a meeting on COVID-19 measures in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura, economic revitalization and virus policy minister, speaks at a meeting on COVID-19 measures in Tokyo on Thursday. | KYODO

The policy of barring spectators from venues in Tokyo — along with Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures — was agreed on at a meeting Thursday attended by International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach and representatives of the games organizing committee, the International Paralympic Committee, as well as the Japanese and Tokyo metropolitan governments.

“It is extremely regrettable that the games will be staged in a very limited manner in the face of the spread of novel coronavirus infections,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee. “I am very sorry for ticket holders and local residents who were looking forward to the games.”

Limited numbers of spectators will be allowed at venues in Miyagi, Fukushima and Shizuoka prefectures, Hashimoto said.

With the pandemic persisting in Japan and around the world, the promise made repeatedly by organizers and officials — that the Summer Games will signify humanity’s triumph over the virus — appears increasingly optimistic.

Instead, the pandemic has forced organizers to cancel promotional events, reduce spectators and impose numerous restrictions on athletes flying in from countries all over the globe.

“There’s a race between the vaccination of the public and the spread of the delta variant,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s virus response, said on Thursday, referring to a deadlier, more transmissible form of the coronavirus. “Until the vaccine rollout makes further progress, it’s crucial that foot traffic is kept low leading up to summer break and the Bon holidays.”

While numbers of new cases are low in most parts of Japan, a resurgence is gaining momentum in large cities and highly populated areas.

COVID-19 measures will be in place until Aug. 22, which is roughly two weeks after the Olympics end and two days before the beginning of the Paralympics.

The Olympics will take place from July 23 to Aug. 8, followed by the Paralympics, which will run from Aug. 24 until Sept. 5.

A mother and her child pose in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on Wednesday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
A mother and her child pose in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on Wednesday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

With the rising numbers of cases in the capital, there is a looming fear that the Tokyo Games could become a massive superspreader event that would overwhelm its hospitals and scatter variants domestically and abroad.

Tokyo reported 896 new cases Thursday, a day after the city logged 920, the highest daily count since mid-May.

The number of hospitalized patients and patients with severe symptoms are increasing in Tokyo, while infections among people living together and coworkers sharing the same office space continue to account for the largest portion of traceable new cases.

“The virus is undoubtedly rebounding in Tokyo,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine and a top adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

If the current trajectory continues, Ohmagari said the capital could see more than 1,000 cases a day within three weeks, and more than 1,400 as soon as a month from now.

“If foot traffic continues to increase and the delta variant is allowed to spread further, Tokyo could see an explosive increase in new cases,” he said.

As of last Friday, Tokyo had reported 760 cases of the delta variant.

The government has declared a state of emergency for Tokyo through Aug. 22, covering the entire period of the Tokyo Olympics. | AFP-JIJI
The government has declared a state of emergency for Tokyo through Aug. 22, covering the entire period of the Tokyo Olympics. | AFP-JIJI

Organizers announced in June that attendance at competitive events during the games would be limited to 10,000 fans or half capacity, but the escalating outbreak in the capital has forced them to change plans.

Meanwhile, virus measures for the Tokyo Games have already begun to fall apart at the seams, as a small but growing list of athletes, coaches and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Tokyo Organising Committee announced that two staff at the athletes village tested positive earlier this month after eating dinner in a group of four people, with the other diners being staff and contract workers for the games.

Twelve staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since July 1, the day virus protocols set forth by the organizing committee took effect.

On Sunday, NHK reported that a Serbian athlete had tested positive upon landing at Haneda Airport. The four athletes who had traveled aboard the same flight are being quarantined at a facility near the airport.

The delta variant was detected in two members of the Ugandan national team after their arrival in Japan last month.

While organizers have announced those cases, the Mainichi Shimbun reported in June that at least one member from each of the French, Egyptian, Sri Lankan and Ghanaian delegations had tested positive.

A visitor takes a photo in front of a 2.5-meter gold medal displayed at a building in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Monday. | KYODO
A visitor takes a photo in front of a 2.5-meter gold medal displayed at a building in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward on Monday.
| KYODO

Critics warn that, while the organizing committee’s coronavirus measures might look good on paper, in practice they will fall apart.

The infections emerging among athletes and staff could foretell what is to come during the games.

While efforts have been made to reduce the number of organizers and stakeholders from abroad, tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, staff, journalists and volunteers are expected to travel to Tokyo from around the world and within the country.

The global death toll from COVID-19 reached 4 million on Thursday, even as several countries race to vaccinate their populations faster than the spread of new variants.

Japan has traversed three states of emergency and four waves of the pandemic, each bigger than the last.

Owing to the largely voluntary nature of the central government’s infectious disease measures, the diminishing impact of COVID-19 protocols has been a major concern since the beginning of the pandemic.

Signs of a rebound began to emerge in the capital less than a week after the most recent state of emergency was replaced by quasi-emergency measures on June 21.

New cases of COVID-19 as well as the delta variant and foot traffic in Tokyo have been increasing steadily ever since.

“The situation is becoming increasingly severe,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Thursday. “What’s important now is to employ stronger measures so that we can stop the virus from spreading further, and protect the lives and livelihoods of the capital’s residents.”

Information from Kyodo added

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