March 4, 2020 / 12:21 AM / a month ago

Japanese coronavirus infections reach 1,000, Olympics preparations on track

TOKYO (Reuters) - The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Japan reached the 1,000 mark on Wednesday, as the government reiterated that plans to host the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July remained on track.

A man wearing a protective mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, is seen at the Shinjuku station in Tokyo, Japan, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The newest infection case was confirmed in a man in his 40s in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi, the prefecture’s governor, Tsugumasa Muraoka, told a news conference.

Cases in Japan have now hit the 1,000 mark, public broadcaster NHK said. Of those, 706 are from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, while 12 have died, the health ministry said.

Meanwhile, the government’s top spokesman said on Wednesday that Japan would go ahead in preparing to host the Olympics as planned, amid speculation they could be postponed because of the coronavirus threat.

“We would steadily proceed with our preparations while closely coordinating with the IOC (the International Olympic Committee) and the organising committee,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a regular news conference.

The Olympics are scheduled to open in less than five months and International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach on Tuesday reiterated his backing for this summer’s Games despite the coronavirus threat, urging athletes to prepare “full steam.”

Still, there are worries the Games could be postponed or even canceled. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked schools to close this month, companies are encouraging employees to work from home and sporting events are being canceled or played in empty arenas.

Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto fueled concerns about a delay, saying on Tuesday that Tokyo’s contract with the International Olympic Committee “could be interpreted as allowing a postponement” until the end of the year, although she reiterated the government remained committed to the Games starting on July 24.

Hashimoto also indicated the end of May could be a key date for making any decisions related to a possible cancellation.

Masa Takaya, a Tokyo 2020 organizing committee spokesman, said on Wednesday the government had clarified its commitment for the Games to proceed, and there was no deadline on a decision whether to postpone.

“We have been informed from the Olympic minister that she is absolutely on the same page and the Games will go ahead as planned.”

The epidemic has already been affecting related events in the run up to the Games.

Crowds will be smaller and receptions have been scrapped at the Tokyo 2020 torch-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, Greece, next week as the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) introduced measures to protect against the coronavirus, it said on Tuesday.

Olympics host city Tokyo has seen 40 cases, while infections have been confirmed as far south as Okinawa.

The latest case was the first in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi.

“Given how the coronavirus was spreading throughout the country, I thought it would only be a matter of time before a case was confirmed in Yamaguchi,” Muraoka said. “We will be doing all we can to prevent the spread of the virus.”

The northern island of Hokkaido, which has a population of about 5 million people, has confirmed more than 70 infections. That is the largest number of cases in Japan, prompting the island to declare a state of emergency.

In separate statements on Wednesday, Japan’s biggest carrier ANA Holdings and local rival Japan Airlines Co said they would cancel some of their domestic flights between March 6-12 due to slower travel demand.

Reporting by Chris Gallagher, Makiko Yamazaki, Sakura Murakami and Jack Tarrant; Editing by Stephen Coates and Lincoln Feast.

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