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Rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Hokkaido could further impact the already troubled Tokyo Olympics, with the mayor of Sapporo — host of men’s and women’s Olympic soccer matches, and marathon and racewalking events — calling for the central government to once again take action and new local restrictions coming into effect in the city on Thursday.

Sapporo’s new restrictions are voluntary and are due to expire on Aug. 22. However, new cases over the past week have now exceeded 25 per 100,000 residents, meeting the criteria for the central government's highest alert stage, Stage Four, where a state of emergency could be declared.

“We’re seeing more than 70 or 80 new infections a day, and it’s expected the situation with available hospital beds in the city will become increasingly severe,” Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto said Wednesday. “We have decided to ask the national government to take urgent measures in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Until this decision is made, we will continue to take our own strong measures.”

Sapporo reported 96 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, with a total of 140 new cases logged for all of Hokkaido. These marked the highest figures since a central government-issued state of emergency was lifted on June 20. Hokkaido then went under quasi-emergency measures, which included shortened business hours for dining establishments and restrictions on when they could serve alcohol, until July 11.

Given the lack of a state of emergency, Hokkaido has for now decided to implement measures in Sapporo that are designed to prevent the spread of cluster infections in particular. Beginning Thursday, the city’s restaurants may serve alcohol to groups of up to four people, but for no more than two hours.

In addition, public facilities in Sapporo will close, except for libraries and a local zoo. Hokkaido residents are being asked to avoid unnecessary and urgent travel and to stay away from Sapporo.

Customers watch a Tokyo Olympic women's soccer match between Japan and Canada at a sports bar in Sapporo on Wednesday. The match was played behind closed doors at Sapporo Dome. | KYODO
Customers watch a Tokyo Olympic women’s soccer match between Japan and Canada at a sports bar in Sapporo on Wednesday. The match was played behind closed doors at Sapporo Dome. | KYODO

The rise in new coronavirus cases just as the Tokyo Olympics get underway has created worries about the strain on local medical facilities. As of Wednesday, about 30% of Sapporo’s available hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were occupied, with the infection route for nearly half of Hokkaido’s new cases, including those involving the more infectious delta strain, remaining unknown. Akimoto has said the city is working to increase the number of available beds.

Sapporo is hosting a number of Olympic events, including men’s and women's soccer events until late next week. The men's and women's marathon and race-walking events are due to take place in early August. The soccer competition in Sapporo, which began Wednesday, is being played without spectators.

The marathon routes pass right beside JR Sapporo Station and then through the city center. People are being asked to refrain from watching the runners from the side of the road, although there are concerns about how to keep the large number of people living or working in downtown Sapporo from getting too close to the runners.

Large sections of the city are already expected to be shut down during the walking races and marathon, which are scheduled to run between Aug. 5 and 8. If a new state of emergency or quasi-emergency is declared for Sapporo, it would further expand the number of restaurants and bars that will be asked to shorten opening hours.

The marathon events were moved to Sapporo to avoid Tokyo’s summer heat, but the city is also interested in holding its own future Olympics — the city was chosen by the Japanese Olympic Committee in January 2020 as the country’s candidate for the 2030 Winter Olympics.

At that time, Sapporo was considered a top candidate, having been praised by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during a visit in January last year. Winning the 2030 bid would make Sapporo the host for a second time, as it was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics.

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