TOKYO — Olympic organizers said on Thursday they would bar spectators from most events at the Games to open in two weeks, a decision that followed the announcement of a new state of emergency in Tokyo in response to a sudden spike in coronavirus cases.
Officials have long insisted they can hold the Tokyo Games safely amid a pandemic. Last month, they announced that they would allow domestic audience Despite public fears that sports could become a petri dish for new forms of the virus.
Now, the virus has wreaked havoc again on planning by Olympic organisers, who gathered in an emergency meeting Thursday night to decide how to respond to the latest challenge of a pandemic that has already hit the Games a year. was delayed.
The announcement was made just hours before the Olympic torch was set to begin the final – and long-delayed – leg of its journey through Japan. Officials decided this week that there would be almost no real races during the two-week cruises through Tokyo and its suburbs, replacing the marathon with a series of celebrations that will be closed to the public.
Addressing reporters on Thursday night, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga acknowledged the challenge facing the country as the more infectious Delta version began to circulate. He warned about the risk of the virus spreading beyond Tokyo as people went home for the summer holidays.
But at the same time, Mr. Suga pledged to deliver an Olympic Games that will go down in history not as another victim of the pandemic, but as an example in the face of adversity.
Viewers will see it from all over the world, he said, and “I want to give them a message from Tokyo about overcoming difficulty with effort and wisdom.”
The bar for achieving that goal rose even higher on Wednesday, when Tokyo reported 920 new coronavirus infections, the highest number since May, when the case count briefly exceeded 1,000.
The state of emergency declared on Thursday will begin on Monday and will be in effect for the duration of the Olympics beginning July 23. It is the fourth time Tokyo has been placed under a state of emergency since the start of the pandemic.
The most recent began in late April, and most restrictions were lifted by the end of June. Tokyo has since been in a semi-emergency which was to be lifted next Sunday.
The impact of COVID-19 on Japan has been relatively mild compared to the impact on the rest of the world – a success that experts attribute to the ubiquitous mask-wearing, among other things. The death toll, more than 14,800, is far fewer than the United States, and Japan has never gone into the tougher lockdowns seen in places like Australia and Singapore.
but Japan’s Vaccine Rollout – now at more than a million doses a day – got off to a slow start, and the country continues to grapple with moderate levels of infection.
Tokyo residents take each new state of emergency less seriously. The streets that were empty in June 2020 are now almost full of people going about their lives as normal – at least until evening, when bars and restaurants close early.
Nevertheless, the Japanese public has expressed widespread opposition as Olympic organizers proceeded with planning for the Games. Recent polls show that a large number of people support canceling or further delaying the Olympics.
Today’s Best Reader Comments
With each passing day, the chances of the Games being put on hold, regardless of the status of the virus outbreak in Tokyo, become less. in the sign of inevitability of eventInternational Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach arrived in Tokyo on Thursday. After the city entered a new state of emergency, he canceled a previous trip to Japan scheduled for the spring.
Speaking on Thursday night ahead of a meeting of Olympic organisers, Mr Bach said Japan’s tough measures to prevent the spread of the virus to athletes and other participants “have proven successful.”
Going forward, he said by video from a hotel room where he was in quarantine, “We will support any measures that are necessary for a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Japanese people and all participants. “
Officials have been forced to revise their plans on the fly in response to developments in the virus situation. In March, the organizers announced that Foreign visitors will be banned. Then, in late June, as virus cases declined across the country, officials announced they planned to allow home spectators at events, with no more than 10,000 people to watch competitions held in large venues. are capable.
Under the plan, venues will take strict precautions against the spread of the virus and the total number of tickets will be halved, with a lottery held to determine who can participate. But organizers warned they could change plans if virus numbers spike again.
With the announcement on Thursday, spectators will be barred at all events in and around Tokyo. Some, such as marathons, will be held at locations not affected by the new state of emergency, which will likely allow some fans to participate. But the organizers announced that spectators would be asked not to cheer up those running on the streets.
The earlier decision to allow spectators was criticized by relevant experts regarding the possibility that the Games could become a superspreader event.
Concerns have increased with the arrival of athletes from all over the world in Japan. So far, at least four members of Olympic teams have tested positive for the coronavirus and have been quarantined.
makiko inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.