TOKYO - The Tokyo Olympics is still set to kick off next month despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but local fans attending the event can expect significant restrictions.
According to Japanese event organizers, the Olympic Games will ban alcohol at venues in a bid to prevent another surge of coronavirus infections in Japan.
International spectators have been barred from the event, but more than 15,000 athletes from more than 200 countries will travel to Tokyo, as well as thousands of officials, journalists and support staff.
The delayed games open July 23, and the Paralympics begin a month later.
"We decided as Tokyo 2020 not to sell alcoholic beverages and to ban drinking alcoholic beverages in the venues," organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said Wednesday at a news conference.
In addition, athletes who might want a drink to celebrate have been told by organizers to "drink alone" in their rooms. Alcohol is otherwise banned in the athletes' village, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, spectators are barred from making direct contact with others, including cheering loudly and giving high-fives. Fans who attend must also wear masks, social distance and go straight home after the event.
"We are hoping that there won’t be so many people," Dr. Tetsuya Miyamoto said, director of medical services for Tokyo 2020. "This is an infectious disease we are talking about. It has the possibility of spreading. So once that happens, the numbers could start to explode."
While the number of new cases has been receding in Tokyo, only about 7% of Japanese are fully vaccinated — and even though the government is now supercharging its vaccine drive after a slow start, the vast majority of the population still won't be immunized when the games start.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, the government's top COVID-19 adviser, called it "abnormal" to hold the world's biggest sports event during a pandemic. He also said the safest Olympics would be with no fans.
"We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not," Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee wrote in a recent editorial published by the Kyodo news agency. "The IOC also seems to think that public opinion in Japan is not important."
The news comes about one week after The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, called for a "global conversation" about how to handle the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo.
In the article, published June 12, the authors criticized global health organizations for largely staying silent on the topic.
"Global health organizations have been largely silent on whether the Games should proceed. WHO refuses to be drawn on whether they should go ahead. The ECDC has told The Lancet it has not specifically performed or even discussed a risk evaluation for the Olympics," the journal’s authors wrote.
The journal reported that lengthy petitions have been signed in Japan, 10,000 volunteers have resigned, and several opinion polls have shown that most respondents thought the Games should be postponed or canceled.
"With 6 weeks until the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games begin, concerns over the safety of the Games amid the COVID-19 pandemic are intensifying," the authors wrote. "Public health experts have expressed strong reservations about how well the risks are being mitigated in articles and before parliamentary committees."
And while the International Olympic Committee has the final approval to decide the fate of the Olympic Games, the event carries huge economic incentives for Japan.
The IOC and the Japanese government insist the games will go ahead safely, as the number of attendees allowed to the games has been halved. In addition, two negative COVID-19 tests are required from participants before departure for Japan as well as daily testing during the games.
"We are hoping that there won’t be so many people," Dr. Tetsuya Miyamoto, the director of medical services for Tokyo 2020, said. "This is an infectious disease we are talking about. It has the possibility of spreading. So once that happens, the numbers could start to explode."
In May, the IOC said the Olympic Games would happen even if a state of emergency were to be declared this summer in Japan.
"We have successfully seen five sports hold test events during a state of emergency," said John Coates, a vice president of the IOC. "All of the plans to protect safety and security of athletes are based around worst possible circumstances. So the answer is absolutely yes."
Meanwhile, the authors said that control and prevention of COVID-19 — including vaccination — are highly variable worldwide.
"Their vaccination is not mandatory and mixing could risk avoidable transmission of SARS-CoV-2, including emerging viral variants, seeding fresh outbreaks when attendees return home," the authors wrote. "The Games might also adversely affect the COVID-19 situation within Japan, where case numbers are falling, but several regions remain under a state of emergency."
According to data issued Thursday by Johns Hopkins, only 8.7% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. There have been more than 789,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases to date in Japan, and the virus has claimed more than 14,500 lives in the country.
"This silence is a deflection of responsibility. The risks of the Games, and how they are being managed, need wide scrutiny and approval. There needs to be a global conversation about the Games, and it needs to happen now," the authors wrote.
The Tokyo Olympics is set to officially begin on July 23.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.