(Corrects number of elite runners in seventh paragraph)
By Naomi Tajitsu
TOKYO, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Japan said on Monday it would limit public crowds in Tokyo to prevent further spread of the deadly coronavirus, scrapping the emperor’s birthday celebrations and closing next month’s Tokyo Marathon to all but elite professional runners.
The widening fallout of the outbreak, which began in China in December and has killed over 1,700 people, is threatening large public events and damaging output and tourism in Japan.
A further spread of the disease, dubbed SARS-CoV-2, could undermine growth and potentially push the country into recession, analysts say.
Citing “circumstances”, the Imperial Household Agency said it would cancel Emperor Naruhito’s public birthday address on Feb. 23, his first since his coronation last year. The event regularly attracts tens of thousands of people to the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo.
The last time the emperor’s birthday celebration was cancelled was 1996, amid a hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Peru.
Organisers of the Tokyo Marathon, one of the world’s biggest such races, say the 38,000 general participants who signed up for the March 1 race will not be allowed to compete, a person with knowledge of the issue told Reuters.
Instead, the event will be limited to top-level competitors. A total of 176 elite runners and 30 elite wheelchair athletes are registered for the race.
A spokeswoman for the Tokyo Marathon Foundation declined to comment.
The marathon is not the only international sporting event in Japan the virus has affected: The FIBA Asia Cup 2021 postponed a qualifying basketball game between Japan and China, originally scheduled to be held near Tokyo this week.
As the number of people infected in Japan has risen above 400, most of them passengers on a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, a hospital outside Tokyo said it would stop admitting new patients after one of its staff tested positive for the virus.
The hospital in Sagamihara, 50km (31 miles) west of Tokyo, said a nurse was infected after treating an inpatient who died of the disease this month.
On Monday morning, a fifth government-chartered flight carrying 65 Japanese arrived in Tokyo from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak, bringing the total number repatriated from the city to 763, broadcaster NHK reported.
Hundreds of passengers are preparing to be evacuated from the quarantined cruise ship, and one member of the testing team from Japan’s health ministry has tested positive for the disease, the ministry said.
Companies are stepping up measures to prevent the spread of the virus as a growing number of cases have been reported in people who have neither visited China nor have had direct contact with people arriving from there.
Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp, one of Japan’s biggest companies, said it was urging its roughly 200,000 group-wide employees to work from home or stagger their commutes.
On Friday, NTT Data Corp said a contract employee who at one of its buildings was confirmed infected. The company has ordered 14 workers who were in close contact with that person to work at home, it said. (Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu, additional reporting by Noriyuki Hirata and Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle)