As coronavirus looms over Olympics, Japan PM urges two-week curbs on sports events


TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks as the country battles to stem coronavirus contagion amid mounting concerns the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could be canceled.

Abe’s call came after a Tokyo baseball team said it would play games in an empty stadium this weekend, while two businesses in central Tokyo reported confirmed cases of infection a day after the government had urged companies to encourage staff to work from home or stagger commutes.

“Taking into account that the next one to two weeks are extremely important in stopping the spread of infection, the government considers there to be a large risk of transmission at sports, cultural events and large gatherings of people,” Abe said in parliament.

As of mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Japan had close to 170 cases of infections from the flu-like coronavirus, separate from 691 reported from a cruise ship that was quarantined of Tokyo earlier this month.

The northern island of Hokkaido, the region most affected outside Tokyo with 38 cases, reported another fatality related to the virus, bringing the total in Japan to six, including 4 from the cruise liner. Hokkaido will seek to close public elementary and junior high schools for a few days starting from Thursday, the Kyodo news agency reported.

The disease is believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has spread rapidly, infecting about 80,000 people globally and killing more than 2,700, the vast majority in mainland China.

Japan’s government has shifted strategy in fighting the contagion, seeking to slow its expansion and minimize the number of deaths rather than stopping it completely, now seen as impossible.

Earlier on Wednesday the minister in charge of the Olympics sought to quell fears the Olympics could be canceled.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound said earlier the Games would more likely be canceled than postponed or moved should the virus threat enforce any change in schedule, the Associated Press reported, with a decision necessary by May.

“The IOC is preparing for the Tokyo Games as scheduled,” Minister Seiko Hashimoto said in parliament when asked about Pound’s comment. “We will continue our preparations so that the IOC can make sound decisions.”

In a briefing with reporters, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he had been told by the IOC that Pound’s comment that any cancellation decision would be made in May was not the IOC’s official stance.

Officials have consistently denied the Olympics will be postponed or canceled. But Tokyo has been forced to postpone training for volunteers, with large scale gatherings like March’s Tokyo Marathon already voluntarily curtailed or halted altogether.

Meanwhile the Yomiuri Giants baseball said on its website it would stage planned preseason games versus cross-town rival the Yakult Swallows at its Tokyo Dome stadium, but with no fans in the building. Located in the central Bunkyo district, the stadium can seat more than 40,000 baseball fans.

Separately the national sumo association told Reuters a board meeting would be held on March 1 to discuss whether to proceed with its spring tournament, due to start in Osaka on March 8. Japan’s professional soccer league has already called off all domestic games through the first half of March.

The growing shadow over the Olympics came as Dentsu Group Inc (4324.T), an advertising giant deeply involved in the Games, told employees to work at home after a confirmed coronavirus case at its central Tokyo headquarters. Its shares in slid to a seven-year low amid the concerns about the Games.

In another confirmed case, property developer Mitsubishi Estate Co (8802.T) said one of its skyscrapers in the Marunouchi business district had been visited by a person with the virus.

In Hokkaido, Governor Naomichi Suzuki said an elderly person in the city of Hakodate died on Tuesday and checks after the death confirmed coronavirus infection. Three additional cases were confirmed in the northern prefecture on Wednesday, Suzuki told a news conference.

(GRAPHIC: Tracking the coronavirus: here)

Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell