Sections of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay could be scaled down or even cancelled if spectators lining the route fail to observe coronavirus restrictions, Games organisers have warned.
Spectators who turn out to watch the torch as it begins its journey around Japan next week must wear masks, avoid cheering loudly and keep a safe distance from one another, the Tokyo 2020 organising committee said on Tuesday.
“Please watch from the streets, but ensure you are physically distanced from everyone else,” Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, said at a briefing on Tuesday. “We want you to ensure your safety while you are watching the relay.”
The prestigious event, which marks the official countdown to the postponed Games, will begin in Fukushima on 25 March, just four days after Tokyo is scheduled to lift a state of emergency declared in early January amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the capital. The city reported 300 new infections on Tuesday, up from 290 a week earlier and bringing its total caseload to almost 16,000.
The relay opening ceremony at J-Village – a football training complex that became the nerve centre for the response to the March 2011 meltdown at nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station – will be held without spectators.
Once the torch, initially carried by members of the women’s national football squad, reaches surrounding streets, spectators will be expected to follow the rules or risk seeing the relay leg cancelled, Hidemasa Nakamura, the Tokyo 2020 Games delivery officer, said.
If, for example, people were touching shoulders, “we would send out a request for them to spread out”, Nakamura said, adding that police could be called on to repeat the request if people refused to move. “If there is still congestion, then there could be a stronger message,” he said.
Organisers outlined the measures hours after the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, received the first of two Covid-19 vaccinations before his trip to Washington next month to meet the US president, Joe Biden.
A masked Suga rolled up his shirt sleeve and did not appear to experience any discomfort as the vaccine was administered in front of TV cameras at a Tokyo hospital.
Suga, who is 72, had indicated he would not be vaccinated until 36 million people aged 65 or over become eligible for the jab in mid-April, but the Japanese and US governments reportedly agreed to take precautions. Biden received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine before his inauguration in January.
Japan has so far vaccinated tens of thousands of medical workers, some of whom have been asked to monitor their health for possible side-effects.
Japan was the last G7 nation to begin its vaccination programme, and much of the country will still be unprotected by the time the Olympic torch is carried into the main stadium in Tokyo for the Games’ opening ceremony on 23 July.
People with existing conditions, care home staff and those aged 60-64 will be immunised from June, the health ministry has said, but no timeline has been given for people aged between 16 and 60.
Supply issues and vaccine hesitancy could further delay the rollout. A poll by the Kyodo news agency last month found only 63.1% of people said they wanted to be inoculated, with 27.4% saying they did not want the jab.
Suga has said he will secure enough doses for Japan’s 126 million people in the first half of this year, although the under-16s will not be inoculated.
The unusual provisions for the relay are another sign of the difficulties organisers face as they attempt to carry off an event involving tens of thousands of athletes, officials, sponsors and journalists in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The option of cancelling or dramatically scaling down the relay reportedly gained little traction with organisers, partly because its sponsors include corporate giants such as Toyota and Coca-Cola.
About 10,000 torchbearers will carry the symbol of the Games through 859 locations in Japan’s 47 prefectures, culminating in its arrival at the Olympic stadium.
But the runners will not include the footballer Nahomi Kawasumi, who confirmed she would not take part due to Covid-19 fears.
“Again, I will decline to be a torch relay runner,” she tweeted on Monday. “I made this decision because the infectious disease problem has not yet been resolved and I live in the United States.”
This content first appear on the guardian