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TOKYO – The Japanese government declared a new state of emergency in Tokyo on Thursday after a sudden surge in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, once again devastating preparations for the Olympics, which organizers insisted on being held safely amid a pandemic.
The decision could force officials to abandon plans announced late last month to allow domestic spectators to attend Olympic events, a move that met public opposition over concerns that the Games could become a petri dish for new varieties of the virus.
Tokyo reported 920 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest number since May when the number of cases briefly surged over 1,000. The state of emergency begins on Monday and will last for the duration of the Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 23.
It is the fourth time Tokyo has been placed in a state of emergency since the pandemic began. The most recent started in late April and most of the restrictions were lifted by the end of June. Tokyo has since been in a quasi-emergency, which should be lifted next Sunday.
The effects of Covid-19 on Japan were relatively small compared to the effects on the rest of the world – a success that experts attribute to the ubiquitous wearing of masks, among other things. The death toll is far lower than the United States at just over 14,800, and Japan has never seen lockouts as tough as Australia and Singapore.
But Japan’s vaccine rollout – now at over a million doses a day – started slowly, and the country has struggled with persistently moderate infection rates.
Tokyo residents take each new state of emergency less seriously. Streets that were empty in June 2020 are now full of people who go about their lives almost as usual – at least until the evening, when bars and restaurants close early.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the Olympics were postponed for a year. The organizers have continued planning for the Games this year despite widespread opposition from the Japanese public – recent polls show that a large majority of people support a cancellation or further postponement of the Olympics.
In response to developments in the virus situation, officials were forced to revise their plans on the fly. In March, the organizers announced that foreign viewers would be banned. Then, in late June, as virus cases across the country receded, officials announced they were planning to allow domestic viewers to attend events, with up to 10,000 people watching competitions at larger venues.
According to the plan, venues would take strict precautions against the spread of the virus and the total number of tickets would be cut in half, with a lottery held to see who could enter. However, organizers warned that these plans could change if the number of viruses rises again.
Under the current conditions, spectators could be banned from all events in Tokyo and the surrounding area. A few, like the marathon, will be held in locations that are not affected by the new state of emergency, so there is a possibility that some fans will be allowed to participate. However, the organizers announced that spectators will be asked not to cheer for the runners on the streets.
The decision to allow spectators had already been criticized by experts who were concerned that the games could turn into a superspread event.
Concern was high as athletes flocked to Japan from around the world. So far, at least four members of Olympic teams have tested positive for the corona virus and have been quarantined.
Makiko Inou Reporting contributed.