Thousands of Japanese spectators will be allowed to attend events at the Olympic Games this summer, organisers said on Monday, despite warnings from health experts that crowds risk fuelling a surge in coronavirus cases.
The president of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, Seiko Hashimoto, said attendance would be capped at up to 50% of a venue’s capacity or a maximum of 10,000 people.
“In principle, spectators will be admitted to events subject to the above limits,” organisers said in a statement. “In light of the government’s restrictions on public events, the spectator limit for the Olympic Games will be set at 50% of venue capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 people in all venues.”
A decision on spectators at the Paralympics will be delayed until 16 July, a week before the Olympics open. Japanese media reports said as many as 20,000 people could attend the Olympic opening ceremony at the main stadium, but organisers said the number would “not be that high”.
Government officials said they would leave open the option of holding events without spectators if the infection situation worsened before or during the Olympics.
“If there should be major dramatic change in infections, we may need to revisit this matter amongst ourselves, and we may need to consider the option of having no spectators in the venues,” the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, said.
Hashimoto said: “We want people there to appreciate Tokyo 2020. What is most important is for people in Japan to feel safe and secure, so we have to keep providing information to make them feel that way.”
After an online meeting with the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, and the Tokyo metropolitan and Japanese governments, she told reporters: “These limits will apply in principle, but they could be revised in the case of a state of emergency or any other virus measures that go into force at that time.”
Speaking before the meeting the IOC president, Thomas Bach, said he was “absolutely sure that it will be a decision to best protect the Japanese people and all participants”.
Spectators will be asked to wear masks, to travel directly to venues and to return home as soon as events have finished. Tokyo 2020’s chief executive, Toshiro Muto, said requiring them to offer proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-test result would be “problematic”.
A decision on whether to serve alcohol at venues is still under discussion, while a new lottery among existing ticket holders will have to be held. Before the Games were postponed last year, organisers had sold around 4.45 million Olympic tickets and nearly a million Paralympic tickets in Japan.
Last week the Japanese government’s top health adviser, Shigeru Omi, said banning all fans would be the safest option. “We believe the risks of infections inside venues would be lowest by holding the event with no fans,” said Omi, a former World Health Organization official.
“We believe it would be most desirable not to have fans inside venues. Regardless of holding the Olympics or not, Japan has continuing risks of a resurgence of the infections that puts pressure on the medical system.”
Hashimoto, however, said domestic and international sports events had been held safely with spectators in recent months, adding that Omi was referring to an “ideal” scenario. “We believe that we can hold the Games with spectators,” she said.
Organisers and the IOC decided this year to ban overseas spectators, while the number of officials, journalists and support staff has been cut to below 80,000, in addition to 11,500 athletes.
Japan’s public remains opposed to holding the Games. According to a 19-20 June poll by the Asahi News Network, 65% of respondents said they wanted the event postponed again or cancelled. Nearly 70% of respondents said they thought the Games would not be held safely and securely, despite reassurances by the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.
Suga recently lifted a coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo and eight other prefectures following a resurgence in Covid-19 cases driven by more transmissible variants.
The capital and six other regions are now under quasi-emergency restrictions until 11 July. Although bars and restaurants are now allowed to serve alcohol until 7pm, they must close an hour later.
While cases have decreased in Tokyo in recent weeks, the fall has not been as pronounced as officials had hoped. On Sunday it reported 376 new infections, up from 304 from a week earlier. The capital has recorded almost 170,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, and more than 2,100 deaths.
Japan has seen a comparatively small Covid-19 outbreak, but its death toll of nearly 14,500 is high by regional standards. Its vaccine rollout has been slower than those in other major economies, although it has picked up speed in recent days. Only 6.5% of the population has been fully vaccinated.