Japan declares COVID emergency in Tokyo, mulls fan-free Olympics
As Japanese capital battles a new wave of COVID cases, pressure grows on Olympic organisers over spectators.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has declared a coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo that will run through the city’s hosting of the Olympics, as organisers consider banning all spectators from the event.
Suga said on Thursday that the state of emergency would go in effect on Monday and last until August 22.
This means the Olympics, opening on July 23 and running until August 8, will be held entirely under emergency measures.
Suga said the state of emergency was needed to “prevent the resurgence of the future spread on cases across the country”.
Medical advisers experts have said for weeks that having no spectators at the Games would be the least risky option amid widespread public concern that the influx of thousands of athletes and officials will fuel a fresh wave of infections.
Organisers have already banned overseas spectators and have set a cap on domestic fans at 50 percent of capacity, to a maximum of 10,000 people. Talks to finalise the restrictions on the spectators are expected either on Thursday or on Friday.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who arrived in Tokyo on Thursday to oversee the last leg of the preparations, will preside over the talks.
Other participants in the discussions include the Tokyo and national governments and Paralympic officials.
Japan has not suffered the kind of explosive COVID-19 outbreaks seen in many other countries but has had more than 810,000 cases and 14,900 deaths.
A slow vaccine rollout has also meant that only a quarter of the population has had one COVID-19 vaccine shot so far.
The new state of emergency in Tokyo comes as the capital announced 896 new daily infections on Thursday, near highs last seen in mid-May.
The main focus of the state of emergency is a request for bars, restaurants and karaoke parlours serving alcohol to close. A ban on serving alcohol is a key step to tone down Olympic-related festivities and keep people from drinking and partying.
Tokyo residents are expected to face stay-home requests and watch the games on TV from home.
“How to stop people enjoying the Olympics from going out for drinks is a main issue,” Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said.
The uptick in infections has also forced the Tokyo city government to pull the Olympic torch relay off capital streets, allowing it to run only on remote islands off the Tokyo coast. It is unclear how the torch will enter the stadium for the opening ceremony.
Further underscoring the last-minute nature of the preparations, organisers told Olympic sponsors on Wednesday they are anticipating two scenarios when Tokyo goes under the state of emergency: having no spectators or setting a 5,000-person limit on spectators, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters news agency.
In the no-spectator scenario, the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as all sports events, will probably be carried out without fans, including tickets allocated to the sponsors, the organisers told companies in online meetings.
If the number of spectators is capped at 5,000 per venue, tickets allocated to Olympic sponsors would be halved, and organisers also expect any session after 9pm (12:00 GMT) would be staged without spectators, the source said.
The absence of crowds will likely further strain the Games’ budget, which has already blown out to an estimated $15.4bn, with ticket revenues of about $815m expected to take a big hit.
Until this week, officials have insisted they could organise the Games safely with some spectators, but a governing party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some of Suga’s allies attributed to public anger about the Olympics, had forced the change of tack, sources told Reuters.
Japan will hold a parliamentary election later this year and the government’s insistence that the Games – already postponed by a year because of the pandemic – should go ahead could cost it support at the ballot box, they said.