The Tokyo Olympics will be held without spectators, organizers said Thursday, delivering another major blow to the Summer Games two weeks before festivities begin.
Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa announced the decision after Japanese officials concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases imposed a state of emergency in Tokyo that runs until Aug. 22.
It is the latest setback for the games that were delayed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The games are set to be staged later this month and next with an array of COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Foreign spectators were banned early on, though plans to allow up to 10,000 Japanese fans or 50% capacity of venues had to be scrapped after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said an emergency order will go into effect Monday.
“New cases in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area have been rising since June,” Mr. Suga said, according to the Japan Times. “Stronger measures have become necessary in those areas, but could be lifted early if we see evidence of the positive impact of the vaccine rollout.”
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and other organizers met in Tokyo before announcing the spectator ban.
For months, doctors and members of the public have slammed the games as a potentially dangerous “super-spreader” event in a country dogged by outbreaks and hampered by a slow vaccine rollout.
About 11,000 Olympians and 4,400 Paralympians are expected to enter Japan, along with tens of thousands of officials, judges, administrators, sponsors, broadcasters and media. The IOC says more than 80% of Olympic Village residents will be vaccinated.
Nationwide, Japan has had about 810,000 cases and nearly 14,900 deaths. Only 15% of Japanese are fully vaccinated, low compared with 47.4% in the United States and almost 50% in Britain.
The new state of emergency will last until after the Olympics conclude on Aug. 8, but end before the Paralympic Games, which will be held from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
The White House said Thursday it supports Japan’s decision to go forward with the games and remains in close contact with Japanese officials.
It is not clear whether first lady Jill Biden will attend the opening ceremony on July 23, a possibility President Biden raised in June.
“We’re still assessing the feasibility of the first lady attending and our advance team arrives in Tokyo later this week,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Thursday’s decision was a serious blow for Japanese taxpayers and local organizers of the games. Hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket revenue will be lost and must be made up by the government. Fans also have endured months of uncertainty about whether the Olympics will proceed.
“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 the meeting. “It’s gut-wrenching because many people looked forward to watching at the venues.”
The ban covers Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures — Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. A smattering of events in outlying areas, such as baseball in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, will allow a limited number of fans.
The emergency declaration made for a rude arrival for Mr. Bach, who landed Thursday in Tokyo for the games, which will now be largely a TV-only event. He attended the virtual meeting about fans from his five-star hotel for IOC officials, where he was self-isolating for three days.
“What can I say? Finally we are here,” Mr. Bach said, sounding upbeat as he opened the late-night meeting that ended close to midnight. “I have been longing for this day for more than one year.”
Japan is officially spending $15.4 billion on the Olympics, and several government audits say it’s much larger. All but $6.7 billion is public money.
Two weeks ago, organizers and the IOC said they would allow venues to be filled to 50% of capacity, with crowds not to exceed 10,000. The state of emergency forced the late turnaround, which was always an option if infections frew worse.
On Thursday, Tokyo reported 896 new cases, up from 673 a week earlier. It’s the 19th straight day that cases have topped the mark set seven days prior. New cases on Wednesday hit 920, the highest total since 1,010 were reported on May 13.
A government COVID-19 advisory panel on Wednesday expressed concerns about the resurgence of infections.
“Two-thirds of the infections in the capital region are from Tokyo, and our concern is the spread of the infections to neighboring areas,” said Ryuji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.
The Olympics are pushing ahead against most medical advice, partially because the postponement stalled the IOC’s income flow. It gets almost 75% from selling broadcast rights, and estimates suggest it would lose $3 billion to $4 billion if the Olympics were canceled altogether.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.