Japan has announced that the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead under a state of emergency and without any spectators at events in the capital.
"We must take stronger steps to prevent another nationwide outbreak, also considering the impact of coronavirus variants," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday at a task force meeting after finalizing the decision.
The emergency will begin Monday and last until Aug. 22, although it could be lifted earlier, Suga added, if the pandemic situation improves.
Suga apologized that the new emergency was being declared some three weeks after the last one was lifted and for the burdens it would put on Japan's population.
Since the last emergency, Tokyo has been under a looser, quasi-emergency, which has been unable to stop a fifth wave of infections from surging.
Fans might still be allowed at venues outside Tokyo
Other areas outside the capital that are hosting events may have some spectators, Japanese media have reported, and organizers may seek exceptions to allow VIP guests, including members of the International Olympic Committee, corporate sponsors and foreign dignitaries.
Polls show the Japanese are concerned about Olympic participants spreading infections to the population at large despite promises by organizers that athletes, staff, media and other participants will be kept in a "bubble."
At least three Olympic athletes arriving in Japan have tested positive for the coronavirus, some with the Delta variant, as have some staff at the Olympic Village.
Last month, the government sped up vaccinations, opening mass inoculation centers in Tokyo and Osaka staffed by military doctors. It also planned to vaccinate employees at their workplaces and students at universities. The government hit its target of 1 million vaccinations a day but quickly exhausted supplies.
As a result, it was forced to suspend reservations for vaccinations and abort the workplace vaccination plan. At present, less than 15% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to government statistics.
The games are causing political fallout in Japan
The decision on spectators reflects the high political price politicians could pay for missteps related to the games.
Tokyo voters handed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a setback in local elections last weekend, denying it a majority in the municipal legislature. Exit polls suggested that candidates' stances on the pandemic and the Olympics were a factor in how most respondents voted.
Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Tama University Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo, says Japan's government was angling for a soft power payoff from the games.
The games were supposed to demonstrate that Japan is "back" after decades of economic stagnation and a 2011 triple disaster that brought a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. They were meant to showcase the country's place as both a tech powerhouse and competent organizer of international extravaganzas.
"The Japanese people were all supposed to feel good about themselves for having done all these things," he adds, "and the LDP was just going to take that to the ballot" in general elections this fall.
Now, Glosserman adds, that dream seems out of reach, and the country faces the risk of a pandemic-related catastrophe.
"If there's any outbreak that can be attributed to anybody here for the Olympics, athletes, officials, whatever, it's going to just blow up" in the organizers' faces, he predicts.
Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Organizers of the Olympics have announced that there will be no spectators at any of the games' venues in the capital, Tokyo. Overseas spectators were already barred from the games. The Olympics start on July 23. The decision comes hours after Tokyo announced its latest state of emergency. We're joined now by NPR's Anthony Kuhn on the latest. Hi, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So, Anthony, no spectators. Why have they been banned?
KUHN: Well, this decision was made in a meeting of Olympic organizers Thursday evening, Tokyo time. And among them was Olympic - International Olympic Committee chief, Thomas Bach, who just got into Tokyo Thursday. And he told the meeting that the IOC basically supports any measures to keep the games safe for participants and residents, and so that's how they wanted to portray the decision.
Now, the organizers, of course, did not want to ban spectators. The original plan was to have all the Olympic venues filled to half-capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 people. And Tokyo would be under sort of loose restrictions, not a state of emergency, but it didn't work out that way. The country is now facing a fifth wave of infections. Experts have warned that if the games are to be held, this is the safest way to do it, and many residents agree with them. And just before this decision was announced, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that another state of emergency will be in effect throughout the games in Tokyo.
It's important to say that these are not draconian measures. Japan is, you know, basically asking bars and restaurants not to serve alcohol, asking workers not to work from home. It's Japan's third state of emergency, and none of them have been lockdowns of the sort we've seen in other countries.
FADEL: Are there any exceptions to this ban?
KUHN: Possibly. There are events that are being held around the country outside Tokyo, areas which do not have high COVID case numbers, and they could have spectators. There are going to be plenty of VIPs - foreign dignitaries, IOC members, corporate sponsors - and they could get exceptions. And Prime Minister Suga said that if the pandemic situation improves, the state of emergency could be lifted earlier, so the rules could change.
FADEL: What is the state of the pandemic in Japan right now and of vaccinations?
KUHN: Yeah, case numbers are pretty low by international standards, but they've been climbing steadily for about three weeks since the last state of emergency was lifted. Vaccinations in Japan got off to a very slow start. The government made a major push last month, and they hit their goal of a million doses administered per day, but they used up doses faster than they could import them. And now they're running out, and they've had to dial back the whole campaign.
And so far, they've got less than 15% of the population fully vaccinated. Most of those are elderly people and medical workers. And medical experts warn of explosive growth in case numbers if no emergency was declared, and that could even possibly overwhelm medical facilities while the games are in progress.
FADEL: So there must be concern that people coming in - athletes, other officials - might bring infections with them, right?
KUHN: Yeah, that's been a chief concern. It's been reported that several athletes - Ugandans and a Serbian - tested positive for COVID, one after he had passed through border controls. And there have also been unconfirmed reports of other athletes, some infected with Delta variant. But there's a lot of things we don't know about this, like whether those athletes have infected other people, local residents.
FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, thank you.
KUHN: Thank you, Leila.
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