Coronavirus in Japan: New COVID-19 cases hit professional sports as baseball and soccer try to bounce back

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak Japan Baseball
Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants pitches with a backdrop of empty stands during play in a preseason baseball game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, in a February 29, 2020 file photo.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Tokyo — Sports fans were crushed Wednesday on word that two Tokyo Giants baseball players had tested positive for the new coronavirus. The Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo’s favorite baseball team, were forced to abruptly called off a practice game at the downtown Tokyo Dome stadium. Practice games nationwide had just started the day before. 

Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) announced on May 25 that the season opener would finally take place, three months late, on June 19. Games were to be played behind closed doors, on a truncated 120-game schedule. 

NPB had taken other anti-virus measures: The country’s 12 teams were divided into two geographic regions, and were scheduled to play only teams in their area in order to minimize cross-country travel. Umpires were ordered to wear face masks, and players were instructed to make sure their high-fives were contact-free. The cases confirmed Wednesday mark the first time players have been infected with the virus since late March.

Meanwhile, days after J-League soccer announced a first-division opening date of July 4, Nagoya Grampus forward Mu Kanazaki tested positive for COVID-19, forcing training to grind to a halt while the clubhouse and grounds were disinfected. 

Another of Japan’s most popular sports, sumo, has been in hiatus following the COVID-19-related death of a 28-year-old apprentice sumo wrestler on May 13. The loss prompted the Japan Sumo Association to offer antibody testing to its nearly 1,000 wrestlers and staff.

Women sumo wrestlers in Japan fighting for visibility

The association had taken the extreme measure — the first in its history — of holding its spring tournament behind closed doors. But after half a dozen other sumo members were found to have contracted the virus, the tournament was canceled for only the third time ever, with no clue offered as to when or how its next tournament might be held.

While COVID-19 cases in Tokyo are relatively low (5,295 in a city of 14 million) by international standards, and schools, restaurants and most other businesses have reopened, residents remain anxious about a possible resurgence of the disease.

On Tuesday, Governor Yuriko Koike issued a new alert after 34 new infections were reported in the capital region. Wednesday brought less worrying news, with only 12 new cases confirmed. But Koike said another shutdown was not an option at this stage. The city is now at stage-2 in a three-stage reopening plan that began on May 26.

New coronavirus infections in Asia spur fears of resurgence

“Changing the decision to open or close would have a large impact on businesses,” she told reporters.

Instead, she moved this week to issue an “alert,” cautioning residents and vowing that Tokyo authorities would continue monitoring for any new cases, many of which have originated in the city’s seedy, densely-packed nightlife district of Kabukicho.

City employees are being dispatched again to the area, a few blocks from City Hall, to warn passersby to avoid crowded, badly ventilated indoor spaces, which have become coronavirus hotspots.

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