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Social distancing strengthened in Greater Seoul

South Korea reports 371 more COVID-19 cases Friday


Social distancing rules stricter than the current Level 2 are set to come into effect in the Greater Seoul area starting Sunday to contain the fast spread of COVID-19, with operating hours slashed for restaurants, only takeout allowed at franchise coffee chains and private cram schools shut down.

“While keeping social distancing guidelines at Level 2, the government has decided to implement stronger quarantine measures starting Sunday for eight days,” Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a briefing Friday.

Instead of raising the current Level 2 social distancing rules to the highest possible step in the three-tier system, the government chose to add more restrictions on certain businesses in the Greater Seoul area for the next eight days while maintaining the Level 2 social distancing scheme.

The move comes as Level 2 social distancing, which took effect nationwide on Aug. 23, has yet to yield positive results in containing the spread of the coronavirus across the country.

Korea reported 371 new COVID-19 cases Friday -- 359 locally transmitted and 12 imported -- pushing the total caseload to 19,077, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite calls to immediately enact the highest level of social distancing, which is tantamount to a lockdown, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said it would only be “a last resort,” citing immense disruptions to people’s everyday lives and the country’s economy. 

What changes under Level 2.5 rules?

As clusters of infections are found stemming from enclosed areas such as coffeehouses, restaurants and indoor fitness centers, the government expanded the list of businesses subject to tougher restrictions.

Restaurants, cafes and bakeries in Greater Seoul -- comprising Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province -- can serve customers in-person until 9 p.m. From 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., only takeaway and delivery services are allowed.

In the case of franchise coffee chains, having food and drinks inside will be banned and only takeout or delivery services will be available.

Operations of fitness centers, golf courses and billiard halls will be suspended.

While schools in the Seoul metropolitan area already turned to online learning completely, private cram schools, including ones with fewer than 300 students, and study cafes will also be closed.

One-third of all employees working in the government, state-run agencies and public institutions are required to work from home. The same rule is recommended at private companies, too.

Under the de facto “Level 2.5” social distancing rules, about 380,000 restaurants and bakeries, 63,000 private cram schools and 28,000 sports facilities are expected to be affected.

The new measures apply to establishments in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, home to about half of the country’s population. They are set to take effect at midnight Sunday and last until Sept. 6.

New, sporadic clusters popping up across country

Despite Level 2 social distancing rules in place since Aug. 23, the spread of the novel coronavirus shows no signs of easing.

The massive clusters of infections from a church and Aug. 15 rally held in central Seoul are leading to sporadic, simultaneous COVID-19 transmissions across the country at such places as cafes, restaurants, offices, apartment buildings, fitness centers, churches and more.

Friday’s tally, which counts cases up to midnight Thursday, marks a decrease from 441 new cases reported the day prior, which was the biggest single-day jump since March 7. Some 320 cases were registered Wednesday, 280 Tuesday and 266 Monday.

South Korea’s new virus cases have been in the triple digits since Aug. 14, when 103 new cases were reported. More than 3,800 new cases were identified across the country over the past 15 days.

Infections from unidentified sources are also a source of concerns.

Transmission routes for 19.7 percent of the new cases reported Aug. 15-28 were unidentified, according to the KCDC.

Among locally transmitted cases, the vast majority, 284, were registered in the Seoul metropolitan area: 145 in Seoul, 27 in neighboring Incheon and 112 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.

As of Friday, the accumulated number of cases in the Seoul metropolitan area was 7,200, exceeding the number of cases in Daegu, 7,007, the previous epicenter in the country’s massive COVID-19 outbreak in spring.

Outside the Seoul area, new cases were reported in all administrative regions -- 17 in Gwangju, 12 in South Jeolla Province, nine in South Chungcheong Province, eight each in Busan and Daegu, five in North Chungcheong Province, three each in Daejeon and Gangwon Province, two each in Sejong, North Jeolla Province, South Jeolla Province and Jeju Island and one each in Ulsan and North Gyeongsang Province.

The country also continues to report cases linked to the Sarang Jeil Church and to a massive rally held in central Seoul on Aug. 15.

The number of cases traced to the Seoul-based church and the rally totaled 978 and 294, respectively, as of Thursday at noon, according to the KCDC.

Fears over the spread of the coronavirus led to the shutdown of a record number of schools – 7,175 -- across the country as of Friday morning, according to the Ministry of Education. So far, 356 students and 94 educators have tested positive for the virus.

Of the 12 imported cases, eight were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other four detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Nine cases originated in Asia and three were from the United States. Four of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.

So far, 14,551 people, or 76.27 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 90 from a day earlier. Some 4,210 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. Fifty-eight people remain in serious or critical condition.

Three more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 316. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.66 percent – 1.94 for men and 1.42 for women.

The country has carried out 1,887,717 tests since Jan. 3, with 50,711 people awaiting results as of Friday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (