With the stage of emergency lifted in the Kansai region and soon to be reevaluated in the greater Tokyo area, both Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League have been given the go-ahead to start planning their seasons — without fans, for now.
The two leagues held the eighth meeting of their joint task force on Friday, with medical experts indicating that lowered infection rates across the country may allow for professional sports to resume with protocols in place to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading to players, coaches or team officials.
“While the country has issued the state of emergency, large-scale events including sports have not been held,” said Mitsuo Kaku, the leader of the task force’s medical panel and an authority on infectious disease, during an online news conference. “But the situation has drastically changed recently. We don’t know yet what will happen to the Tokyo metropolitan area and Hokkaido, but we believe the conditions are in place for the state of emergency to be lifted for the entire country.
“We are not in the position to say when the appropriate timing is for the leagues to start playing, but we believe that we are getting closer to being able to host sporting events.”
The government is expected to reassess the situation in the five remaining prefectures covered by the state of emergency on Monday.
The medical experts stressed, however, that the leagues would be required to keep paying close attention in order to prevent infections for the players, staff, their families and fans.
NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito described revised guidelines for preventing the spread of the coronavirus as being “about 80 pages.” They have been updated since their original creation in early April to include several new protocols, including how to deal with players potentially being reinfected with the virus after initially recovering. Concerns over lack of rest for players resulting in potentially weaker immune systems were also raised.
The panel also advised the leagues to restart play in empty stadiums, further recommending track-and-trace systems to prevent the virus from spreading among fans once they are allowed to return to the stands.
Also, the panel insisted the leagues should administer tests, including PCR and antigen tests, to all players.
Saito said that his office distributed the guidelines to all 12 ballclubs on Thursday.
On Friday, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike announced a roadmap toward restarting the capital’s economy, saying that NPB and the J. League would be allowed to host games behind closed doors once the state of emergency is lifted.
“We heard that pro baseball was listed in ‘step No. 1’ by the Tokyo governor,” Saito said. “We would like to move forward, taking the advice of the medical experts to heart.”
J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai said during a Tuesday media briefing that the league would announce its new schedule on May 29 if the state of emergency is lifted on Monday.
Both league leaders held separate meetings with their respective club representatives later in the day. Neither went into much detail about those talks in media sessions following those meetings. Both leagues want to wait until the state of emergency is officially lifted in the remaining prefectures.
Speaking about the timing of baseball's opening day, Saito said, "We are going to have to talk to the players' association about it. But we're not expecting it to take too long of a period. I think the practice period (before starting the season) will last less than a month."
Murai said the J. League, which last weekend celebrated the 27th anniversary of its first match, plans to give its clubs four to five weeks to prepare for the resumption of the season.
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