Japan declares state of emergency, Olympics still on but without fans in Tokyo

The Tokyo Olympics will happen amid a state of emergency, and without fans at events in the host city.

The Japanese government on Thursday announced that it would re-institute strict measures to counter COVID-19 surges in the capital. The measures will take effect next week, and last the duration of the Games, which officially begin July 23 and end Aug. 8.

Hours after the announcement, Olympic organizers walked back a previous decision to allow local spectators to attend events. Following an urgent late-night meeting, they announced that there will be no fans at competitions held in Tokyo and other areas affected by the state of emergency.

The Olympic rings is displayed near the National Stadium, main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo on July 7, 2021, as reports said the Japanese government plans to impose a virus state of emergency in Tokyo during the Olympics. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
The Olympic rings are on display throughout Tokyo. The Games begin July 23. (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

Organizers have not yet made final decisions on whether they'll bar fans from events held elsewhere around the country. Some soccer, baseball and softball games, among other events, will be held in regions not covered by the emergency measures. In those regions, "local government authorities will meet and decide specific measures in consultation with the local governors based on the situation in each area," organizers said in a statement.

The vast majority of events, however, are in Tokyo and will be staged behind closed doors.

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee president Seiko Hashimoto also confirmed that the Opening Ceremony, at the Olympic Stadium, will be closed to the general public.

Hashimoto said, however, that Olympic officials, foreign dignitaries, and other Games stakeholders could still be allowed to attend the ceremony. And IOC officials, sports executives and other "accredited" personnel will still have access to venues throughout the Games.

An outline of which Japanese prefectures will be allowed to host spectators during the Olympics. (via Tokyo 2020 spokesman Tristan Lavier)
An outline of which Japanese prefectures will be allowed to host spectators during the Olympics. (via Tokyo 2020 spokesman Tristan Lavier)

Games will go on amid state of emergency

On Wednesday, 16 days before the Opening Ceremony, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 920 COVID cases, over 200 more than any other single-day total since May. On Thursday, it reported 896, the second-highest count since May. Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top government medical advisor, said Wednesday that "infections are in their expansion phase and everyone in this country must firmly understand the seriousness of it."

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed to “do everything we can to prevent the further spread of the infections.” One day later, citing rising case counts and the more infectious Delta variant, he declared the state of emergency, which will extend through Aug. 22, two weeks after the Olympics end.

Organizers have said, though, that the Games can and will go on in a state of emergency. Tamayo Marukawa, Japan's minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, reiterated that commitment Thursday at the beginning of a meeting of leaders from the Japanese and Tokyo governments, the International Olympic Committee, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and others. IOC president Thomas Bach did as well, hours after arriving in Tokyo as scheduled.

"I think we can all be very satisfied that the strict measures, having been established to protect everybody — the Japanese people and the participants of the Games — have proven to be successful," Bach said from his hotel room, where, due to those strict measures, he'll be quarantining for three days.

The state of COVID in Tokyo

Tokyo's seven-day COVID-case average had fallen in late May and early June, to fewer than 400 cases per day in a city of millions. The decline led government officials to peel back their previous state of emergency, and eased any lingering fears in the Olympic world that the Games might be postponed again or canceled.

That seven-day average, however, has been slowly but steadily climbing since June 18, two days before the previous state of emergency was lifted. Some targeted restrictions remained in place, leaving some sectors of public life under a quasi-state of emergency. But the virus lingered, and over the past 10 days showed signs of accelerating. The test positivity rate rose from under 4% in mid-June to over 6% this week. Hospitalizations are also rising.

Transmission rates remain far lower than they ever were at the pandemic's peak in the U.S. But with most Japanese still unvaccinated — less than 30% has received at least one dose — officials and citizens have been wary of exponential spread, and of the possibility that the Olympics could contribute to it.

The Olympics' plan for COVID

Olympic organizers have outlined and plan to enforce a complex web of COVID countermeasures that will limit contact between Olympic participants and non-participant Japanese citizens. The measures won't completely eliminate that contact, but all "Level 1" participants — athletes, coaches, team officials and more — will be tested daily. Testing frequency for others will depend on how often they interact with Level 1 participants. The testing will greatly limit spread in and around the Olympic bubble.

(IOC/Tokyo 2020 playbook for athletes)
(IOC/Tokyo 2020 playbook for athletes)

The Japanese concerns, though, extend beyond that bubble. One is that the Games would lead to dense gatherings of local citizens. Organizers have barred foreign fans from traveling to Tokyo, but in late June, one day after the previous state of emergency was lifted, announced that venues would open to Japanese spectators at 50% capacity, up to 10,000 per event.

In doing so, organizers defied the advice of Omi, the government medical advisor, who had recommended a ban on all spectators and warned of "continuing risks of a resurgence of the infections that puts pressure on [Japan's] medical systems.”

In announcing the decision, though, organizers left leeway for reconsideration. "In the event that a state of emergency or other priority measures aimed at preventing infection are implemented at any time after July 12," they said, "restrictions on spectator numbers at the Games, including non-spectator competitions, will be based on the content of the state of emergency or other relevant measures in force at that time."

And on Thursday, at the multi-party meeting of organizers, they indeed reconsidered. They also pushed back a decision on fans at the Paralympic Games, which begin Aug. 24, until after the Olympics end.

Prior to the pandemic, ticket demand for the Tokyo Olympics had been sky-high, especially among locals. Organizers had projected some $800 million in ticket revenue. The vast majority of that has now fallen by the wayside, and Tokyo's projected losses — against more than $15 billion of expenditure — have increased.

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