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FOCUS: Can Tokyo Olympics be held with spectators during the pandemic?

FOCUS: Can Tokyo Olympics be held with spectators during the pandemic?

With less than five months until the start of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan still faces many unanswered questions about how to hold the world's biggest sporting event amid the coronavirus pandemic, one major concern being whether spectators will be admitted. While the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee remain adamant that the Olympics and Paralympics will be staged following their one-year postponement, it is unclear what exactly the Summer Games will look like. File photo taken in August 2020 shows an athletics meet taking place without spectators at Tokyo's National Stadium due to the coronavirus pandemic . (Kyodo) The heads of the Tokyo Games' organizing bodies agreed Wednesday to decide by the end of March whether to allow overseas spectators. The organizers will then make a call in April on how many spectators will be allowed into the venues. "Considering the current situation, it is true that Japan and other countries are in a very difficult situation," Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, told reporters after their online meeting. With most of the world still struggling to deal with the health crisis and more contagious variants of the virus spreading or yet to emerge, Japan may not have many answers for the spectator question, with medical experts saying it is unrealistic to expect full capacity crowds in the stands this summer. Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University, said the "most reasonable decision" is to hold the games without spectators, adding that "other options are not right from a medical standpoint." "Since the Olympics are a global event, it is more important to consider the situation of infections around the world rather than just looking at the situation in Japan," Iwata said in a telephone interview. "Having spectators is an impossibly difficult operation, so I think it is better not to do it. Especially, having visitors from overseas is a major hurdle," he said. A woman walks past a Tokyo Olympics promotional poster in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Feb. 18, 2021. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo Japanese officials have been studying several options, such as only allowing people living in Japan to spectate, having limited crowds or even organizing events behind closed doors, according to people familiar with the matter. Iwata said it is "unacceptable" to have overseas arrivals en masse at a time when Japan still lacks the capacity to effectively track and trace the new variants of the virus coming out of places like Brazil, Britain and South Africa. He also opposed having reduced crowds comprised of Japan residents because it involves people from around the country traveling to and from Tokyo, the region hardest hit by the virus. Under an interim report released in December by a government-led panel in charge of creating COVID-19 countermeasures for the Olympics, overseas visitors will be required to download a contact tracing app. But they will be free to use public transport, and be exempt from a 14-day quarantine requirement if they are from countries with relatively few virus cases. While over 10,000 athletes will be permitted to go to venues and a few other locations, and will be tested at least every four days, the same strict measures do not apply to the larger number of spectators from foreign countries. Before the postponement, it was estimated the Olympics would draw about 7.8 million spectators and the Paralympics about 2.3 million. Japan's current border control restrictions bar nonresident foreigners from entering the country unless they have "special exceptional circumstances." While Japanese organizers could request foreigners refrain from traveling outside of Tokyo during their visit, it is impossible to effectively restrict their movements. Infections in Tokyo, which will host its second Summer Games following the 1964 edition, peaked in the beginning of January, logging over 2,000 new cases daily. The resurgence prompted the central government to declare a state of emergency for the capital and some other parts of the country in January. Nationwide, new cases of the virus have been declining recently and Japan has pinned its hopes on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines that started in mid-February to lessen the impact of the virus on the games. A quarantine official looks at a saliva sample from a passenger who arrived from overseas for an antigen test at Narita airport near Tokyo on Dec. 27, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo Hiroshige Mikamo, a professor at Aichi Medical University, said it would be "realistic," considering the current state of the pandemic, to restrict spectators to residents of Japan and set a cap on the number of people allowed at venues. "The situation of new variants and infections around the world are two key points when making a decision for the Olympics," Mikamo said. "Deciding to have no spectators may be the easiest choice. But (the organizers) are at the stage of considering how to possibly admit spectators." He said spectator limits put in place for the country's professional baseball and soccer leagues will serve as a "sample" when working toward a decision. Last season, the two most widely attended Japanese sports leagues, Nippon Professional Baseball and J-League soccer, admitted a limited number of spectators in line with government rules. Related coverage: Japan may open border to Olympic athletes from next month: sources Tokyo Olympic spectators may be limited to Japan residents 12 women nominated as Tokyo Games organizing committee executives While the pandemic may be showing signs of abating, organizers have little time left to make a call on spectators because of the need to finalize planning for tickets, logistics and immigration procedures. IOC chief Thomas Bach said in an interview with Kyodo News in January that having spectators "contributes greatly to the Olympic spirit, the Olympic atmosphere" but said the organizers have to be "flexible" to prioritize safety. If organizers decide to hold the Tokyo Games behind closed doors or restrict spectators to Japan residents only, it will diminish the value of the Olympics and Paralympics, said Naofumi Masumoto, a visiting professor of Olympic studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University and Musashino University. "Holding the events without spectators will take away the opportunity to promote cross-cultural understanding and cultural exchanges," he said, while emphasizing that safety is the priority when making a final call. "It will be against the ideals of the Olympics, especially because children cannot interact with people from around the world," he said, making it more comparable to a world championships than the multi-sport extravaganza it should be.    

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Coronavirus

Suga says necessary to extend COVID emergency in Tokyo region by 2 weeks

Suga says necessary to extend COVID emergency in Tokyo region by 2 weeks

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday the COVID-19 state of emergency covering the Tokyo metropolitan region should be extended again, by about two weeks, as the situation has not improved sufficiently to end it on the weekend as scheduled. Pandemic measures are at a "crucial turning point," Suga told reporters, adding another extension following one last month was "necessary to protect lives and livelihoods." Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tells reporters at his office in Tokyo on March 3, 2021, that he is considering extending the COVID-19 state of emergency covering Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures by about two weeks as the situation has not improved sufficiently to end it on March 7 as scheduled. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo Suga said after meeting with members of his Cabinet including health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, he will make a formal decision about whether to end the emergency as scheduled on Sunday after consulting with health experts and the governors concerned. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who has raised concerns about the slowing decline of infections, voiced support for the extension after holding a teleconference with her counterparts in neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike meets the press at the metropolitan government headquarters on March 3, 2021, wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo The capital reported 316 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up from 213 a week earlier and bringing its cumulative total to 112,345. The death toll rose by 19 to a total of 1,419. Suga said a key benchmark for ending the state of emergency would be the occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients falling below 50 percent in a clear downward trend. Saitama did not meet the benchmark as of Wednesday last week. Under the state of emergency, people are urged to refrain from leaving their homes unnecessarily and restaurants and bars are asked to close by 8 p.m. Firms are encouraged to adopt remote working while attendance at large events, such as concerts or sports, has been capped at 5,000. Lifting the restrictions is seen as a crucial step toward reviving the world's third-largest economy, which is widely expected to fall back into negative growth in the first quarter of 2021 as consumer spending is likely to have been dampened by the second state of emergency. But health experts and governors have expressed concern that a premature lifting could trigger a resurgence in infections as Japan heads into the season for cherry blossom-viewing parties. Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association, said it was necessary to "focus on bringing down the number of infections," warning that placing more strain on hospitals could hamper the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita and Saitama Gov. Motohiro Ono backed the two-week extension of the state of emergency, while Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said it was "unfortunate" that the situation had not improved enough to end it on schedule. Suga declared a one-month state of emergency for the Tokyo metropolitan region on Jan. 7 before expanding it to a total of 11 prefectures. He later extended it by an additional month but ended it early for the remaining prefectures, citing declines in infections and hospital bed occupancy rates. Related coverage: Tokyo governor wary of ending COVID-19 state of emergency Japan adds 13 nations for extra quarantine steps over COVID variants Woman who got COVID vaccine dies in Japan, no inoculation link for now    

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