The Japanese government is leaning toward limiting spectators at this summer's Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to people living in Japan to ensure safety amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources familiar with the matter said Wednesday.
The government was weighing the possibility, with the heads of the five organizing bodies of the postponed Olympics and Paralympics agreeing the same day to decide by the end of March whether overseas spectators will be able to attend the games.
During the online meeting, the representatives including International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach and Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Games organizing committee, also decided to draw a conclusion by the end of April on how many fans will be allowed to support athletes in the stands at each venue.
Hashimoto told reporters they confirmed that the "top priority" is to hold a safe and secure games for all participants, adding she wants to make the decision on spectators from abroad by March 25, when the Japanese leg of the torch relay is set to begin.
"Also with new variants of the virus, it is an issue that needs careful consideration," she told reporters after the five-party meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes.
She said the organizers will place utmost importance on protecting the health of the Japanese people and people who wish to visit the country for the games.
With less than five months until the opening of the Olympics, which were postponed for one year due to the global health crisis, some officials have informally started expressing reservations about letting overseas visitors enter Japan for the sporting extravaganza.
Japanese officials have been studying multiple scenarios, including staging events behind closed doors and holding them with a limited number of spectators.
Hashimoto said the representatives did not discuss holding the games behind closed doors during the virtual meeting, which was also attended by International Paralympic Committee chief Andrew Parsons, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Japan's Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa.
In his opening remarks, Bach said the organizers will focus on staging "safe, secure and fair competitions for all athletes." He added that prioritizing anti-virus measures and ensuring the safety of all participants are "key for the success" of the Olympics, due to begin July 23.
"It is our common obligation to secure the safety for everybody including the Japanese people and the population of Tokyo," Bach said, adding that "the IOC is standing at your side without any kind of reservation."
Hashimoto, who took the helm of the committee last month, said at the outset of the meeting that she believes it is necessary for the Japanese committee to study additional COVID-19 countermeasures to address new variants of the virus.
Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures have been under a state of emergency over the virus since January after logging a total of about 4,000 daily cases of infections.
While new cases have been declining recently, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that the government is considering extending the emergency for the metropolitan region by about two weeks beyond the scheduled end date of Sunday.
Bach told a press conference in late February that a decision on whether to allow overseas spectators to enter Japan for the games could be made in April or early May.
An interim report penned by a government-led panel, released in December, says that foreign visitors will be exempt from Japan's 14-day quarantine rule in principle and will be allowed to use public transport during their stay.
To that end, the government plans to spend 7.3 billion yen ($68 million) for the development of a contact tracing app and require all foreign visitors to download it on their smartphones.
But the plan has met with skepticism from opposition lawmakers and critics, who believe the use of the envisioned tool will not be effective in preventing the spread of the virus and say that the expensive development will be a waste of money given the uncertainty over the Olympics.