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Suga lays foundation for Olympics with spectators — despite threat of virus rebound

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga paved the way for the Tokyo Olympics this summer to have spectators, through his government’s decision on Thursday to lift the ongoing state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic in most areas including Tokyo on Sunday.

Suga is eager to hold the Olympics with spectators, according to sources citing his aides.

Over the decision to lift the state of emergency, a focal point for the government was the handling of pandemic-linked restrictions on large-scale events.

Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, has indicated that its decision, expected later this month, on whether to allow domestic fans to visit Olympic venues should be consistent with the event restrictions.

On Wednesday, a pandemic advisory panel approved the government’s proposal for a 10,000 cap on the number of spectators in sports and other events after the end of the COVID-19 quasi-emergency stage.

Tokyo and other areas currently under the state of emergency will enter the less strict quasi-emergency stage next week, according to the government’s decision on Thursday.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Shigeru Omi, chairman of the advisory panel, stressed that it approved the audience cap after receiving an explanation that the introduction of the new limit is “not related to the Olympics.”

However, a member of the Suga Cabinet said, “The Olympics’ audience cap will now be 10,000.”

The government, the Tokyo Games organizing committee and three other parties are expected to adopt a similar audience cap for the Olympics.

Suga initially sought to set an event audience cap at 50% of venue capacity, but some Cabinet members and other senior government officials were cautious about this cap, the sources said.

The prime minister eventually accepted the 10,000 cap, taking into account pandemic experts’ calls for holding the Olympics behind closed doors.

At the Group of Seven summit in Britain earlier this month, Suga secured support from the other G7 leaders for holding the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

The government will go ahead with the Olympics as holding the games is now an “international pledge” by Japan, a government source said.

However, a resurgence in infections could undermine Suga’s repeated vow to hold the Olympics “safely and securely.”

While Suga appears increasingly confident in accelerating the country’s vaccine rollout, there are persistent concerns about a rebound in infections.

On Thursday, the advisory panel approved the plan to lift the state of emergency, on condition that the government will not hesitate to take emergency measures if there are signs of a rebound in infections.

Asked whether the government is ready to declare a fresh state of emergency even during the Olympics, Nishimura told a parliamentary meeting, “We’ll issue a declaration without hesitation if it’s necessary for protecting the people’s lives.”

Japan will host the Olympics “not for feeling pride or boosting the economy,” Suga said at a news conference, in response to a question about the reason for holding the games despite the risk of a rebound in infections.

“That’s because here in Japan we can take measures to prevent infections among people coming from abroad,” the prime minister said.

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