TOKYO — The Japanese government declared a new state of emergency in Tokyo on Thursday after a sudden spike in coronavirus cases, wreaking fresh havoc on preparations for an Olympic Games that organizers have insisted can be held safely amid a pandemic.
The decision could force officials to abandon plans announced late last month to allow domestic spectators at Olympic events, a move that had been met with public opposition over concerns that the Games would become a petri dish for new variants of the virus.
Tokyo reported 920 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest number since May, when the case count briefly rose over 1,000. The state of emergency will start on Monday and be in effect for the duration of the Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 23.
It is the fourth time that Tokyo has been put under a state of emergency since the beginning of the pandemic. The most recent one began in late April, and most restrictions were lifted by the end of June. Tokyo had since been under a quasi-emergency that was set to be lifted next Sunday.
The impact of Covid-19 on Japan has been relatively mild compared to the effect on the rest of the world — a success that experts attribute to ubiquitous mask wearing, among other things. The death toll, at just over 14,800, is far lower than that of the United States, and Japan has never gone into the kinds of hard lockdowns seen in places like Australia and Singapore.
But Japan’s vaccine rollout — now at more than a million doses a day — got off to a slow start, and the country has struggled with persistent moderate levels of infection.
Tokyo residents have taken each new state of emergency less seriously. Streets that were empty in June 2020 are now full of people going about their lives almost as normal — at least until evening, when bars and restaurants close early.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the Olympics were postponed by a year. The organizers have proceeded with planning for the Games this year despite widespread opposition among the Japanese public — recent polls show that a large majority of people support canceling or further delaying the Olympics.
Officials have been forced to revise their plans on the fly in response to developments in the virus situation. In March, the organizers announced that foreign spectators would be barred. Then, in late June, as virus cases dropped across the country, officials announced that they planned to allow domestic spectators at events, with as many as 10,000 people able to watch competitions held in larger venues.
Under the plan, event venues would put in place strict precautions against the spread of the virus and the total number of tickets would be halved, with a lottery held to determine who could attend. But organizers warned that those plans could change if virus counts increased again.
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Under current conditions, spectators could be barred at all events occurring in Tokyo and its surrounding areas. A few, such as the marathon, will be held in locations not affected by the new state of emergency, allowing for the possibility that some fans will be allowed to attend. But organizers announced that spectators would be asked not to cheer the runners on the roads.
The decision to allow spectators had already come under attack from experts concerned about the possibility that the Games could become a superspreader event.
Anxieties have been running high as athletes have begun to pour into Japan from around the world. So far, at least four members of Olympic teams have tested positive for the coronavirus and been quarantined.
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.