While the daily tally of COVID-19 infections has been increasing, especially in Tokyo, over the last few days, both Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League remain committed to their original plan to allow fans to attend games this week.
The two circuits explained their positions following a meeting of their joint coronavirus task force on Monday morning.
After their previous meeting, on June 22, NPB and the J. League revealed they would begin allowing up to 5,000 fans into stadiums on July 10, as per the government guidelines on large gatherings. Clubs would then be allowed to operate venues at up to half of their full capacity from Aug. 1.
“Although there is a limit of 5,000, we are expecting to have our fans in stadiums starting this Friday,” NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito said during an online news conference after the task force meeting, which was held for the 11th time since its inception in March. “In the meantime, there have been more than 100 cases (on a daily basis) around Tokyo.
“We are hoping that it does not lead to travel restrictions, but this is a disease. It’s difficult to anticipate (the future). But we’ll do our best so that we won’t have anyone become infected.”
On Monday, Tokyo reported over 100 infections for the fifth straight day. The recent surge is the largest since May. Japan had earlier been under a state of emergency, an order that was lifted for all prefectures on May 29.
The task force has basically made recommendations in line with the government’s, with NPB starting its season June 19 and the J. League resuming on June 27.
The task force’s medical panel said it would have to monitor the infection status for the next 10 to 14 days in order for the leagues to have a better understanding of the situation before Aug. 1.
“The virus hasn’t spread throughout the cities but rather at specific locations (such as nightlife areas), and I think we will be able to see the situation better in the next 10 days or so,” said Mitsuo Kaku, an infectious disease expert who leads the panel. “We will probably be able to make our first assessment over whether they can allow fans (up to 50 percent of venue capacities) from August around July 20. You can’t just make that judgement in the next five days or so.”
Kaku said the task force would have a difficult decision to make if the number of daily cases was still in triple digits after 10 days.
He added, however, that medical experts have more information about the virus than they did in April, and would be better equipped to handle the situation.
“Even if the number stays at about 100 in the next 10 days or so, we have been able to make better analyses with more information about how people get infected, whether they do so at nightspots or whether they’re part of clusters,” Kaku said. “So even if the infection rate is at 100 per day, we’ll be able to handle the situation better than before.
“We can’t say for sure right now, but we believe that both the Tokyo and national governments will keep analyzing it and (our panel) will continue to monitor that.”
In view of the current situation, the national and local governments could announce new guidelines in the future.
Hiroshige Mikamo, another professor on the panel who personally thinks this is “the second wave” of the outbreak, said pro teams have used PCR testing on their players and staff, but hinted it would be easier to use antigen examination testing, which would lower the financial burden for clubs.
The panel also recommended the leagues and teams encourage spectators to use COCOA, the COVID-19 contact-tracing mobile application that was launched by the national government late last month.
As to whether teams will be able to sell alcoholic drinks at their stadiums, the panel said it should not be a problem since those beverages are already being served in regular spaces.
But both Kaku and Mikamo advised fans to remain aware of the risks when coming to stadiums, because the circumstances in the stands may be different.
“The leagues and clubs have tackled this issue extremely hard,” Mikamo said. “But now it’s up to the fans’ efforts to protect the sporting culture (in Japan). In order to do that, we want them to download the app and make sure they don’t come to the stadium when they feel ill.”
In other developments, NPB’s board of governors met later in the day and approved a measure that would allow teams that reach the Japan Series to use a nearby venue if their own stadium is unavailable.
Due to the delay in starting the season, the Japan Series is currently scheduled to begin Nov. 21.
Should the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants reach the Japanese Fall Classic, for example, the club wouldn’t be able to use Tokyo Dome, which is scheduled to host the national industrial league championship, which starts Nov. 22. Meaning Yomiuri would have to play its home games at a different venue.
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