By Chris Gallagher
TOKYO (Reuters) – Osaka prefectural governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said on Thursday the Olympic torch relay in the city of Osaka should be cancelled amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.
Yoshimura had sounded the alarm the previous day that a jump in new coronavirus cases in Osaka was raising fears the western Japanese metropolis was entering a fresh wave of infections that could become its worst yet.
The prefecture, which had just emerged from a COVID-19 state of emergency a month ago, reported 599 new cases on Wednesday. That was a jump from 432 on Tuesday and near the all-time high of 654 set on Jan. 8.
The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to go through Osaka prefecture from April 13-14.
“I think we need to have talks with the city of Osaka, but personally I think the torch relay in Osaka city should be cancelled,” Yoshimura told reporters, adding that he also wanted to have discussions with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organising committee.
Tokyo 2020 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The relay began last week in Fukushima and is being seen as the first major test of the Games in holding a large-scale event while implementing stringent health protocols.
Around 10,000 runners will carry the torch through the country’s 47 prefectures over 121 days.
Tokyo Olympics organisers are requiring roadside spectators to wear masks, practise social distancing and not cheer out loud to prevent the spread of the virus, and there have been no reports so far of infections arising from the relay.
Nagano prefecture barred spectators from parts of the relay on Thursday, however, in a moved aimed at preventing large groups from gathering after its capital city raised its COVID-19 alert level following a recent rise in infections.
No spectators will be present when the last relay runner of the day brings in the torch and lights the Olympic cauldron in Nagano City, the prefecture said.
Spectators will also be barred from a section of road in Nagano City that was expected to attract large numbers of people, while the city’s elderly and those with underlying conditions were urged to avoid watching from roadsides.
Although Japan has been affected by the pandemic less severely than the United States and Europe, its vaccination campaign is off to a slow start while some prefectures are seeing an uptick in new infections.
Most Japanese oppose holding the Games this summer during the pandemic, surveys have shown.
Olympic organisers last month decided to bar international spectators from the Games, and this month are due to decide on the maximum capacity for spectators in venues.
The Olympics, postponed by a year because of the pandemic, are scheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8 and the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Additional reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Peter Rutherford)