The return to emergency represents a political setback for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has resisted canceling the games despite opposition from much of the Japanese public. The 72-year-old premier, who faces a ruling party leadership election and a general election in the coming months, lifted the Tokyo emergency in June, despite warnings that doing so without more vaccinations could contribute to just the sort of surge the capital is now seeing.
Suga said at a task force meeting that he planned to declare an emergency in Tokyo through Aug. 22, after virus cases in Tokyo leaped to 920 Wednesday—the highest since May 13. Another 896 cases were recorded in the capital Thursday.
Suga added that vaccinations were beginning to show an effect and the emergency could be ended ahead of time if the situation improves.
Daily infections have been on the rise since the city ended its third state of emergency on June 20, while only about 15% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. The capital accounts for about a fifth of national economic output.
Olympic organizers had decided late last month to cap spectators at 10,000 per venue or 50% of venue capacity, whichever is smaller. The government had recently been considering cutting that to 5,000 spectators per venue, according to domestic media reports.
The government’s top COVID-19 adviser has repeatedly said it would be preferable to hold the games without spectators and scale back attendance by other people connected to the event, who are not classified as spectators.
A ban on serving alcohol at bars and restaurants in Tokyo will be reimposed, Nishimura said, adding that he was considering speeding up subsidies for affected businesses.
With fans likely to be banned from the bulk of Olympic events, alcohol restricted and authorities calling on the public to stay at home, hopes that the games might mark a psychological turning point toward post-COVID life are all but extinguished.
Although Japan has fared far better than other rich nations in keeping infection numbers low, the nation’s vaccination drive got off to a slow start and after accelerating rapidly it’s now facing localized distribution issues. Opinion polls show voters are critical of Suga’s handling of both the virus and the vaccination program.
Nishimura told reporters that if vaccinations continue to go smoothly, the country could reach Europe’s current levels of coverage by the end of the emergency. At the moment, however, he expressed concern about the spread of newer strains of the virus.
“New infections are continuing to rise,” Nishimura said, in explaining the move. “People are moving around more and the delta variant, which is highly infectious, is accounting for about 30% of cases.”