The members of the Nippon Professional Baseball and J. League joint COVD-19 task force feel their knowledge about the virus and the data they’ve collected has grown exponentially as they enter the body’s second year.
This wealth of information has led both leagues to ask the national government to loosen the current restrictions on attendance at large-scale events from a hard cap of 5,000 to a sliding percentage based on the specifications of each stadium. The leagues feel they can operate safely with proper countermeasures in place.
NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito, speaking after Monday’s task force meeting, said the league’s 12 clubs have sustained significant financial losses over the past year due to the limits on attendance.
“We are entering the second year (under the pandemic) and have to ask the government to let (more) spectators in,” Saito said.
Both Saito and J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai are hopeful the government will allow them to operate with greater flexibility, but said they have not yet received an official response to their request.
The J. League kicks off its 2021 season Friday, while NPB is scheduled to open its campaign March 26. NPB teams are currently in spring training.
The leagues submitted a letter to education minister Koichi Hagiuda, whose ministry also oversees sports, and Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Koji Murofushi earlier this month asking for a relaxation of some of the government’s guidelines.
Saito feels it is more realistic to base the percentage of fans allowed at games on the dimensions of the stadiums where the contests are held. He added, however, the government is reluctant to change and anticipates current measures will remain in place.
The J. League reported an attendance of 4,208 for the Fuji Xerox Super Cup on Saturday at Saitama Stadium, meaning the venue, which can hold 60,000 was at just 7% occupancy.
Murai hopes the leagues can use scientific evidence to convince the government that games can be held safely even if more fans are allowed inside.
“We’ve run our scientific simulations to see what kind of results we get when the infection rates in the cities are this and the dimensions of the stadiums are that,” Murai said.
The task force’s medical panel, meanwhile, is concerned that fans do not go directly home after games and stop by places such as restaurants and bars. He noted that the current state of emergency is set to be lifted March 7, which could cause many people to take a more lax approach toward virus prevention.
“We will have to make sure to come up with countermeasures considering those surrounding elements as well,” said Mitsuo Kaku, who serves as the leader of the medical panel. “And it will be a significant issue.”
While the rate of new infections has slowed around the world, including in Japan, Hiroshige Mikamo, another member of the medical panel, cautioned that a fourth wave would likely arrive and that people need to remain vigilant.
“I believe that the fourth wave will hit us,” Mikamo said. “The officials of NPB and the J. League have done a better job of coming up with countermeasures than we expected and we need the support of the media. It’s easy to slack off, so it’s important that the media keep reminding the public.”
Kazuhiro Tateda, an infectious disease expert, said the government is working on a system — as opposed to another state of emergency — to prevent the spread of the disease and thinks Japan can avoid being hit hard by the next wave of the virus.
“Using (the system) and asking the media for their help, we will have to share as much information as we can with the citizens,” said Tateda, who is also a member of the government’s panel of experts. “If we can achieve that, I think we won’t have to face the fourth wave.”
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