Japan considering ban on all Olympic spectators as authorities prepare state of emergency for Tokyo

A man takes a photograph of the Olympic Rings at Akarenga Park, in Yokohama, Japan, on June 30, 2021.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Japan is considering banning all spectators from the Olympics, several sources told Reuters on Wednesday, with authorities expected to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo to contain coronavirus infections 16 days before the Games begin.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said his government would decide on new measures to stop the spread of the virus on Thursday. Those measures are expected to determine whether spectators can attend Olympic events.

Medical experts have said for weeks that having no spectators at the Olympics would be the least risky option amid widespread public concern that the Games will fuel new surges of coronavirus infections.

Organizers have already banned overseas spectators and set a cap on domestic spectators at 50 per cent of capacity, up to 10,000 people, to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Officials have been wrestling with the question for months but a ruling party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some allies of Suga attributed to public anger over the Games, had forced the change of tact, sources said.

“Politically speaking, having no spectators is now unavoidable,” a ruling party source told Reuters.

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

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said restrictions on spectators would be based on the content of Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency or other relevant measures.

Speaking after Suga made his comments, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the host city would continue to prepare for “a safe Olympics” even under a fresh state of emergency.

Japan has not experienced the kind of explosive COVID-19 outbreaks seen in many other countries, but has had more than 800,000 cases and 14,800 deaths.

Authorities have struggled to stamp out persistent clusters of infections, particularly in and around Tokyo, which reported 920 new daily cases on Wednesday, the highest since May 13.

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

Suga told reporters a decision on virus restrictions would be made on Thursday after talks with health experts. He vowed to respond to Tokyo’s rising cases.

Koike said she expected Suga’s government to tighten coronavirus restrictions.

The Sankei daily, citing government sources, said the government was preparing to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo to contain the virus. The Nikkei newspaper later said the new emergency would last until Aug. 22.

That could mean a ban on spectators at Olympic events as restrictions already in place in the city would be strengthened beyond an original end-date of July 11. Sankei said a “quasi emergency” in place in three prefectures neighbouring Tokyo, which will host some Olympic events, would be extended.

The Games begin on July 23 and end on Aug. 8.

The government will meet IOC president Thomas Bach and Tokyo organizers on Thursday or Friday to discuss the question of spectators.

Top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said this week Suga had raised the possibility of holding the Games without spectators.

Earlier on Wednesday Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the organizing committee, said organizers were striving to ensure safety for everyone with effective public health measures against COVID-19.

Muto, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva by a recorded video, added: “Through the successful hosting of the Tokyo 2020 Games, we hope to show the world that people have the right to live healthier and happier lives, even in difficult circumstances.”

Shigeru Omi, the government’s top health adviser, told a parliamentary health committee it was important to reduce the number of Olympic officials and others attending events as much as possible.

Early July to September was “one of the most important periods” in combatting the coronavirus in Japan, he said.

“We have been saying that it’s preferable that the events be held without spectators,” Omi said.

“We are asking many people to take steps to prevent further spread of the infection. Images of spectators would be sending out a contradictory message.”

Tokyo authorities have also decided to move most of the torch relay, set to reach the capital on Friday, off public roads. Torch-lighting ceremonies without spectators will be held instead.

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