TOKYO (Reuters) – Olympic organisers have capped the number of spectators allowed into venues, but will offer Japanese students special access under a programme that would let hundreds of thousands of children see the world’s best athletes compete.
Tickets are cheap and COVID-19 countermeasures are in place. Many schools, however, have already pulled out, and others are still on the fence, awaiting more information.
Close to 1.3 million tickets were booked for the schools programme last year. But in areas around Tokyo that are hosting several Olympic events, like Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, more than half of the tickets for the programme have been cancelled.
The response to the programme illustrates the challenges facing Japan as it tries to keep fans in the stadiums during pandemic-marred Games that have already been delayed once.
Jun Tashiro, principal of the Shiratori Elementary School in Tokyo, rattled off a list of concerns for the nearly 500 pupils he had planned to take to Paralympic events in August.
“It takes a very long time for children to travel on public transport, we’re worried about how a sick child at the venue should be handled, and seating arrangements are yet to be made,” Tashiro told Reuters in his office.
The Katsushika ward in Tokyo where Tashiro’s school is located will decide whether its schools will participate. Tashiro said he would rather his school did not go.
“We don’t know whether social distancing can be kept,” Tashiro said. “I want to offer our children a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can stay in their memory forever. But safety is the top priority.”
Japan has barred overseas spectators and capped domestic audiences at 10,000 people per venue. But three weeks before the Games are set to start, organisers say they may still hold events without any viewers if infections in the Japanese capital keep rising.
On Saturday, Tokyo, which has been under a state of quasi-emergency, reported 716 new COVID-19 cases, the highest level in more than five weeks.
Children can get the coronavirus but are far less likely than adults to develop severe symptoms. Children are also less contagious, studies https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-children-explainer-idUSKBN22V33B have found.
Some schools are planning to send smaller groups to the Games.
“Now that the coronavirus situation isn’t under control there’s a considerable risk if the entire school attends the events,” said Kazue Karakama, head of the Chiba Prefectural Togane Special Needs Education School.
As some of her students have medical conditions, Karakama said she had to scale back her plan to send the entire school. Now just 15 of 143 students will go watch Olympic wrestlers in August.
Karakama has assigned as many staff as possible to assist the children, who will not eat lunches during the trips to shorten their time at the venues.
Parents also must weigh the rare opportunity for their kids against the risks.
“I don’t know how thorough the measures against infectious diseases would be. It’s a bit scary,” said Koga Ito, a mother of a third-grade student from Tashiro’s school who is scheduled to attend a Paralympics event. “I can’t decide what to do.”
(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Ami Miyazaki and Irene Wang; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Gerry Doyle)