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Japan baseball bans balloons over virus fears

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Tokyo (AFP)

Japanese baseball clubs are banning fans from releasing balloons into the air -- to protect people from the fast-spreading novel coronavirus.

The Hanshin Tigers, whose supporters have for decades launched the screeching, sausage-shaped balloons while their team limbers up to bat in the seventh inning, put a pin in the tradition earlier this week.

Rivals the DeNA BayStars, another club whose fans have adopted the custom, followed suit on Saturday, meaning that the ban will remain for the seven games at their spring training base in Ginowan, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, local media reported.

The Tigers, one of Japan's oldest professional clubs, posted on their website that visitors to games should "refrain from releasing jet balloons as part of precautionary measures against the spread of the new coronavirus" at this month's warm-up games in Okinawa and Kochi prefecture.

The club adopted a similar ban during the 2009 outbreak of swine flu.

Fans of several other of the country's 12 professional clubs have emulated the seventh-inning tradition, one of the most colourful sights in Japanese sport.

The coronavirus epidemic has killed more than 700 people in mainland China and infected over 34,000.

A Japanese man being treated for pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan -- where the disease originated -- has died from flu-like symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

Japan had hitherto reported no deaths from the virus, although 64 people aboard a cruise ship carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew quarantined off Yokohama have tested positive.

More than 20 countries have confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and Japan has warned citizens against non-essential travel to China, fast-tracking new rules including limits on entering the country as it tries to contain the spread.

The outbreak has hit sport across the region with fears being raised about this summer's Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 24.

The health scare has led to the cancellation of Olympic qualifying events in China such as boxing and badminton.

But Tokyo 2020 organisers and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have insisted preparations for the Olympics will proceed as planned.

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