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S. Korea to impose nationwide ban on restaurant gatherings of 5 or more people

Skiers wait in line for a lift at a ski slope in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, on Monday. (Yonhap)
Skiers wait in line for a lift at a ski slope in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, on Monday. (Yonhap)
South Korea will ban five or more people from gathering at restaurants during the upcoming holiday season to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday.

Restaurants will be fined up to 3 million won ($2,709) in case of a violation, while customers will be fined up to 100,000 won, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

The new restriction will be part of the government's special antivirus measures in effect from Thursday until Jan. 3. Exceptions will be made for families and others who are registered under the same address.

During that period, all other private gatherings of five or more people will be strongly discouraged.

Separately, Seoul and the adjacent Incheon and Gyeonggi Province announced a day earlier that they will ban private gatherings of five or more people regardless of venue from Wednesday until Jan. 3.

"We intend to break the force of the third wave with measures that are stronger than those under Level 3 social distancing," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a meeting of the interagency task force, indicating the government remains cautious about adopting the highest level due to its potential economic impact.

"The government will block transmissions in everyday life in practical ways rather than through the formality of adjusting levels," Chung said.

The capital area is currently under Level 2.5, the second highest in a five-tier scheme, as authorities continue to weigh the pros and cons of adopting Level 3 rules.

The rest of the nation is under Level 2.

Chung said ski slopes and other winter sports facilities, as well as popular year-end tourist attractions, such as Jeongdongjin Beach, Cape Homi and Namsan Park, will be required to close during the designated period.

Senior care centers and mental hospitals, which have become hotbeds for cluster infections, will limit visits by outsiders and ban their staff from holding private gatherings, he added.

Department stores and large supermarkets will be required to take customers' temperatures and stop offering samples of food and drinks, according to the officials.

Hotels and guesthouses will be able to offer only half their rooms and will be unable to host year-end parties.

Movie theaters will be forced to close after 9 p.m.

"Although these measures are expected to cause inconvenience to many people due to limited use of facilities and cancellation of hotel reservations, they are inevitable," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, said during a regular press briefing.

He said the government will promptly come up with measures to support facilities that are forced to close or scale back, but he did not elaborate.

The capital area has recently accounted for about 70 percent of the new national daily caseload. In the past week, the country reported more than 1,000 daily confirmed cases for five consecutive days.

On Sunday and Monday, the number fell below 1,000 apparently due to fewer tests over the weekend.

"Yesterday saw a record 110,000 tests, but the number of confirmed cases stood in the 800s, leading us to hope for a turnaround," Chung said. "Christmas and the New Year holiday period must not become a trigger for the coronavirus." (Yonhap)