Both foreign and local sports fans are now barred from attending Tokyo-area Olympic events as COVID-19 cases tick up in the city and the highly transmissible delta variant continues to spread.
Olympic officials agreed to the domestic spectator ban during a meeting Thursday with Japanese officials, who also declared a state of emergency in the world’s most populous city due the rise in infections. The state of emergency is set to take effect July 12 and run through August 22. That covers the entirety of the Olympic games, which are scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8. The Paralympics begin August 24.
“Many people were looking forward to watching the games at the venues, but I would like everyone to fully enjoy watching the games on TV at home,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said after Thursday’s meeting, according to the Associated Press. “It’s gut-wrenching because many people looked forward to watching at the venues.”
The spectator ban is just the latest turn in the controversial effort to host the games amid a global pandemic that has killed 4 million people. The games were postponed from 2020 due to the coronavirus, and medical experts and the Japanese public have pushed back against plans to continue on with the plans.
In March of this year, organizers announced that foreign spectators would be banned. But in June, as cases of COVID-19 were on the decline in Japan, officials discussed plans to allow limited numbers of local spectators to attend in person. Those plans were dashed as cases once again began to climb upward in recent days.
The seven-day average of daily new cases in Japan has increased 17 percent in the past two weeks, with nearly 2,200 cases reported in the country Wednesday. Tokyo reported 920 of those cases, the highest number of cases in the city since mid-May. Meanwhile, Japan’s vaccination efforts have struggled, with only 15 percent of the population fully immunized.
“Taking into consideration the impact of the delta strain, and in order to prevent the resurgence of infections from spreading across the country, we need to step up virus prevention measures,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said.
Amid unease over the influx of thousands of athletes and other Olympic-related visitors, such as sponsors and judges, health experts in Japan worry about infections spreading from Tokyo to other prefectures.
In addition to banning spectators, Prime Minister Suga asked bars and restaurants not to serve alcohol during the emergency, in an effort to stamp down on Olympic-related celebrations.
“The infections are in their expansion phase, and everyone in this country must firmly understand the seriousness of it,” Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top government medical adviser, said. Omi had previously supported a spectator ban and called hosting the Olympics during a pandemic “abnormal,” the AP notes.