With Japan’s second state of emergency already impacting NPB and J. League teams ahead of their respective 2021 seasons, both leagues plan to push for more flexible quarantine rules for players entering Japan — when they are finally allowed to do so.

At Monday’s meeting of the two leagues’ joint coronavirus task force, officials from both organizations revealed that dozens of players, coaches and family members have been affected by the country’s entry ban for anyone except citizens and current residents, a situation NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito described as “a big problem.”

The J. League reported that 23 players, six coaches and 24 family members are waiting to enter Japan ahead of their season’s Feb. 26 start, while NPB said 48 players and coaches, as well as two team staffers, were in a similar situation ahead of their own campaign’s launch on March 26.

“When the state of emergency was announced, there were concerns expressed by medical officials over who would take responsibility if something happened when players entered the country,” Saito said. “The most difficult part is that gaining the understanding of the public and medical officials may be difficult.

“I think first we have to wait for the state of emergency to end and then we can negotiate (with the government).”

Previous exemptions to the entry ban for business travelers and athletes were rescinded in early January following a sudden rise in COVID-19 infections across the country.

Under current regulations intended to curb coronavirus infections, athletes are required to quarantine for two weeks — a length of time that the task force’s medical experts believe could be shortened to as little as seven to 10 days.

“Scientifically, right now it’s about how to use the tests,” Aichi Medical University professor Hiroshige Mikamo said. “For example, if a patient doesn’t show symptoms for 10 days, they get released. But if someone is designated as a close contact they have to quarantine for two weeks. I’ve felt that these rules are inconsistent.”

Finding the ideal combination of testing and timing to accurately determine when athletes can participate in team activities, Mikamo argues, will be key — especially ahead of the troubled 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are scheduled to take place between July and September.

“To be able to provide this sort of data would have a significant impact on holding (Tokyo 2020),” he said.

With the J. League season fast approaching, officials are planning a flexible approach to attendance caps as many clubs are outside current restrictions.

However, J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said that the Feb. 20 Fuji Xerox Super Cup at Saitama Stadium between Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka would take place with a limited crowd of 5,000 fans, due to both clubs as well as the venue falling under current state of emergency protocols.

Both Murai and Saito called for more flexible attendance guidelines based on percentages, rather than the current hard cap of 50% for areas outside the state of emergency.

“Through antibody studies we understand the general number of infections in each region,” infectious disease expert Mitsuo Kaku said. “Based on local infection rates and stadium capacities, we can run simulations to determine what measures would need to be taken — such as wearing masks, restrictions on cheering, washing hands — in order to accommodate crowds above the 50% limit.”

“Last year we developed guidelines on fan behavior and precautions, but now we want to develop models that will allow us, for example, to determine how to safely admit 70% at a 50,000-seat stadium based on that region’s rate of infections.”

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