Tokyo Olympics to ban spectators in city as virus resurges

By Ayai Tomisawa and Gearoid Reidy

The Tokyo Olympics will ban domestic spectators in events held in Japan’s capital, revising an earlier decision to allow some fans, as the resurgence of virus cases pushed the government to declare a state of emergency in the city.

The decision, announced by Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa, comes after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a fourth state of emergency for Tokyo, running from July 12-Aug. 22.

Tokyo Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa

Events held in neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, which will continue to be under quasi state of emergency, will also be spectatorless, the organizers announced late Thursday. Other regions including Fukushima and Miyagi, located northeast of Tokyo, will have some spectators.

It’s a reversal from a decision last month to limit the number of spectators at either 10,000 or 50% of venue capacity, whichever is smaller. Arrangements on how to deal with the already sold tickets will be decided later, according to the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.

The organizers “decided to take a stricter approach than other sporting events because the popularity of the Olympics would mean there will be more flow of people,” Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said at a briefing.

More than half of the 43 Olympic and Paralympic venues, including the 68,000-capacity National Stadium that’s set to host the opening ceremony on July 23, are located in Tokyo. Organizers had said that a no-spectator scenario was possible, depending on the virus situation. A decision to bar fans from overseas was announced in March.

The International Olympic Committee said it supported the decision, but said the planning committees “deeply regret for the athletes and for the spectators that this measure had to be put in place.”

Daily virus numbers have been rising in Tokyo since a state of emergency ended last month, with confirmed infections on Wednesday hitting the highest since mid-May. Concerns over the pace of vaccination, which had been picking up from a slow start, have increased as the nation faces distribution issues.

While opposition to the games has slightly eased in recent weeks, an Asahi newspaper poll showed 64% of those surveyed preferred to hold the games without any spectators, while 30% said they wanted limited numbers.

Even with few spectators and the exclusion of foreign fans, a large number of people will still converge on Tokyo from more than 200 countries. Organizers have said around 53,000 officials and others, excluding athletes, are expected to attend from overseas.

The government’s top COVID-19 adviser has repeatedly said it would be preferable to hold the games without spectators and scale back attendance by other people connected to the event, who are not classified as spectators.

A ban on serving alcohol at bars and restaurants in Tokyo will be reimposed, virus policy czar Yasutoshi Nishimura said, adding that he was considering speeding up subsidies for affected businesses.

“It will be an unusual way of staging the event amid a state of emergency,” Suga told a press conference earlier Thursday, adding that billions of people were expected to watch it on television. “I want to show from Tokyo that the human race can overcome great difficulty through hard work and wisdom.”

The return to emergency represents a political setback for Suga, who has resisted canceling the games despite opposition from much of the Japanese public. The 72-year-old premier, who faces a ruling party leadership election and a general election in the coming months, lifted the Tokyo emergency in June, despite warnings that doing so without more vaccinations could contribute to just the sort of surge the capital is now seeing.

With fans now banned from the bulk of Olympic events, alcohol restricted and authorities calling on the public to stay at home, hopes that the games might mark a psychological turning point toward post-COVID life are all but extinguished.