The Japanese government on Thursday approved the withdrawal of emergency measures for the Tokyo virus a month before the Olympics, but set new restrictions that could drastically limit fans at sporting events.
The current state of emergency in Tokyo began in late April and greatly limits the opening hours of bars and restaurants and prohibits them from selling alcohol.
This measure will now end in the capital and eight other regions on June 20, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced. It will remain in place in Okinawa.
“The number of infections nationwide has declined since mid-May and the situation in terms of hospital beds is constantly improving,” he said.
“On the other hand, in some regions there are signs that the decline in the number of infections is slowing down,” Suga added.
Instead of an emergency, the government will implement so-called “quasi-emerging” measures in Tokyo and six other areas until July 11.
The measures will slightly relax the rules on alcohol, allowing the sale until 7pm, but it is still asking restaurants and bars to close at 8pm.
Crucially, with only five weeks until the opening of the Games postponed by the pandemic, Tokyo is likely to maintain strict limits on the number of spectators allowed at major events.
The current state of emergency allows only 5,000 people or 50 percent of the capacity of the premises, whichever is less. On Wednesday, the government approved an upper limit of 10,000 spectators for areas that are not subject to any restrictions.
These rules are likely to guide Olympic organizers when deciding in the coming days how many national fans, if any, will be able to attend.
Overseas fans have already been banned from the Games for the first time and organizers said they will wait to rule domestic spectators until the emergency arises.
The issue is controversial. Although cases in Japan have fallen since their peak in the fourth wave, some medical professionals fear that crowds of Olympic spectators could favor a new wave.
An expected report soon from some of the government’s top medical advisers will argue that holding the Games without amateurs would be the safest, national broadcaster NHK said on Thursday.
Experts will urge imposing additional rules if spectators are allowed, he said.
80% of athletes vaccinated
Japan has seen a comparatively small outbreak of the virus, with nearly 14,000 dead, despite avoiding hard blockages. But only six percent of the population is fully vaccinated so far.
Given the likely restrictions, Olympic organizers have given up selling more tickets and are weighing a lottery system to determine which ticket holders will be able to attend events, Kyodo news agency reported.
Last year millions of tickets were sold in Japan before the postponement, and while several hundred thousand refund requests were processed after the Games stopped, it is likely that the number of counters exceed spectator limits at many events.
With just over a month to go before the Games open, organizers are trying to be confident that the biggest international event since the pandemic began will be safe for participants and the public.
The recently updated virus rule books released this week warn athletes that they could be expelled from the Games if they violate requirements such as wearing masks and daily testing.
Organizers say more than 80% of athletes will be vaccinated and will be banned from interacting with the Japanese public.
Recent polls have suggested a slight shift in public opposition to the Games, and now more supporters are canceling.
Earlier surveys offering deferment as an option tended to show that most Japanese preferred another delay or cancellation.