Japan to declare virus emergency lasting through Olympics

Japan 2021

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on the Odaiba waterfront as Olympic rings is seen in the background in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

TOKYO (AP) — Japan is set to place Tokyo under a state of emergency that would last through the Olympics, fearing an ongoing COVID-19 surge will multiply during the Games.

At a meeting with experts Thursday morning, government officials proposed a plan to issue a state of emergency in Tokyo from next Monday to Aug. 22. The Summer Olympics, already delayed a year by the pandemic, begin July 23 and close Aug. 8.

The Games already will take place without foreign spectators, but the planned six-week state of emergency likely ends chances of a local audience. A decision about fans is expected later Thursday when local organizers meet with the International Olympic Committee and other representatives.

Tokyo is currently under less-stringent measures that focus on shortened hours for bars and restaurants but have proven less effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is to formally announce the emergency plans later Thursday, hours after IOC President Thomas Bach was to land in Tokyo. Bach must self-isolate for three days in the IOC’s five-star hotel in the Japanese capital before heading to Hiroshima, where heavy rain is threatening flooding.

The upcoming emergency will be the fourth for Tokyo since the pandemic began and is a last-minute change of plan made late Wednesday after a meeting with experts who warned strongly against the government’s soft approach.

A main focus of the emergency is a request for bars, restaurants and karaoke parlors serving alcohol to close. A ban on serving alcohol is a key step to tone down Olympic-related festivities and keep people from drinking and partying. Tokyo residents are expected to face stay-home requests and watch the Games on TV from home.

“How to stop people enjoying the Olympics from going out for drinks is a main issue,” Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said.

Tokyo reported 920 new cases on Wednesday, up from 714 last week and its highest since 1,010 on May 13. The figure is in line with experts’ earlier estimate that daily cases in Tokyo could hit 1,000 before the Games and could spike into thousands in August.

Kazuhiro Tateta, a Toho University infectious diseases expert, noted an earlier state of emergency in the spring came too late to prevent hospitals in Osaka from overflowing with patients and said another delay should not be allowed.

Ryuji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, noted that two-thirds of Japan’s cases are from the Tokyo region and “our concern is the spread of the infections to neighboring areas.”

Experts also noted cases among younger, unvaccinated people are rising as Japan’s inoculation drive loses steam due to supply uncertainty.

Just 15% of Japanese are fully vaccinated, low compared to 47.4% in the United States and almost 50% in Britain. Nationwide, Japan has had about 810,000 infections and nearly 14,900 deaths.

“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, told reporters.

He urged authorities to quickly take tough measures ahead of the Olympics with summer vacations approaching. “The period from July to September is the most critical time for Japan’s COVID-19 measures,” Omi said.

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