Japan to declare COVID-19 emergency for Tokyo as it mulls Olympics without fans

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is set to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo that will run through its hosting of the Olympics to try to contain a new wave of coronavirus infections, a key minister said on Thursday, as organisers consider banning all spectators from the Games.

A social distancing sign is seen in front of a police officer before the arrival of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at Haneda Airport ahead of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo, Japan July 8, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The move is the latest blow to the troubled Olympics, already once delayed because of the pandemic and plagued by a series of setbacks, including massive budget overruns.

Medical 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 for now set a cap on domestic viewers at 50% of capacity, up to 10,000 people. Talks to finalise the restrictions on the spectators are expected either on Thursday or on Friday.

The so called five-way talks would be chaired by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, who arrives in Tokyo on Thursday. Other participants include Tokyo and national governments and Paralympic officials.

Whatever the outcome, those attending the Games have been asked to show their support by clapping rather than cheering or singing. Public viewing sites have been cancelled and companies, wary of public opposition, have been hesitant about advertising related to the Games, adding to a subdued mood in the Japanese capital.

TOKYO INFECTIONS RISE

Japan’s economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the government’s coronavirus response, said a state of emergency in Tokyo is set to begin on July 12 and run through Aug 22.

The Games are scheduled to run from July 23 to Aug. 8.

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Japan has not experienced the kind of explosive COVID-19 outbreaks seen in many other countries but has had more than 810,000 cases and 14,900 deaths.

The imposition of the emergency comes after new daily infections in Tokyo, currently under slightly less strict “quasi emergency” curbs, rose to 920 on Wednesday, the highest level since mid-May.

A slow vaccine rollout has meant only a quarter of Japan’s population has had at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot.

Under the heightened restrictions, restaurants will be asked to stop serving alcohol, Nishimura said.

The move is expected to be made official later on Thursday and followed by a news conference by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Areas neighbouring Tokyo where some Olympic events are also slated to take place, such as Chiba and Kanagawa, are set to remain under “quasi emergency” through August 22.

SPECTATORS

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-spectator cap, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

In the no-spectator scenario, all sports and opening and closing ceremonies will likely 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 9 p.m. would be staged without spectators, the source said.

The lack of crowds may further strain the Games’ budget here, which has already blown out to an estimated $15.4 billion, with ticket revenues of around $815 million expected to take a big hit.

The organising committee did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Until this week, officials have insisted they could organise the Games safely with some spectators, but a ruling party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some allies of Suga attributed to public anger over the Olympics, had forced the change of tack, sources said.

Japan will hold a parliamentary election later this year and the government’s insistence that the Games – postponed last year as the virus spread around the world – should go ahead this year could cost it at the ballot box, they said.

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