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S. Korea extends toughened social distancing until Jan. 3

Officials to shorten approval process for treatments and vaccines while providing relief for small businesses

Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol speaks during a press briefing Sunday, in which he announced the government will extend the Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the capital region until Jan. 3. (Yonhap)
Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol speaks during a press briefing Sunday, in which he announced the government will extend the Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the capital region until Jan. 3. (Yonhap)
South Korea on Sunday decided to maintain its current social distancing rules until Jan. 3 as the country tries to control COVID-19’s impact on the economy while it faces its third and deadliest wave of infections to date amid the winter holiday season.

The country on Sunday announced 970 new coronavirus cases -- 946 locally transmitted and 24 imported from overseas -- raising the total number of cases recorded in Korea to 56,872, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Sunday’s tally marks a drop from 1,132 cases reached the previous day, largely because fewer diagnostic tests were carried out. The country has reported daily figures around the 1,000 mark for five days in a row after adding 867 cases Tuesday.

“Some of the special measures that we are already carrying out are stronger than what’s enforced during Level 3 social distancing scheme,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun in a meeting Sunday.

“The key in controlling the spread of the coronavirus is whether we actually carry out the rules in place ourselves.”

Authorities have kept their social distancing guidelines below the strictest level out of concern about how tougher restrictions would affect the national economy and the lives of small-business owners.

Under Level 3 social distancing the business activities of more than 2 million multiuse facilities would be affected, with 450,000 of them being required to close and 1.57 million others experiencing limitations.

Most companies would have to work remotely, and sports games would be canceled. Multiuse facilities such as wedding halls, movie theaters, concert halls, internet cafes, study cafes, amusement parks and barber shops would have to remain closed.

But the authorities are implementing much stronger restrictions for the winter holiday season, especially on private gatherings. These are due to remain in place until next Sunday.

The country is imposing Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the capital region and Level 2 restrictions in the remainder of the country.

Korea has closed every one of its 16 ski resorts, 35 ice rinks and 128 sledding hills, as well as many New Year’s Day sunrise spots, while placing a 50 percent operating cap on hotels, resorts and guesthouses across the country.

Lodging facilities and party rooms were also barred from hosting any year-end parties or events.

Since Wednesday Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province have banned private gatherings of five or more people, warning of fines of up to 3 million won ($2,700) and civil action against business operators who violate the rule.

The ban is much stricter than what would be enforced under Level 3 social distancing -- a ban on gatherings of 10 or more people.

Other provinces and municipalities asked people to refrain from holding events with five or more people, but did not make the request legally binding.

Greater Seoul has been responsible for close to 60 percent of all coronavirus cases in Korea to date, with the three regions accounting for 68.5 percent of new daily cases announced Sunday. Seoul announced 359 new cases Sunday, Gyeonggi Province 237 and Incheon 60.

Disease control officials said the government had decided to extend the current rules as it needs to monitor changes in the number of daily cases after implementing holiday season-specific measures.

Traffic to and from the Seoul area dipped to its lowest level since the virus outbreak started, which could be a positive sign, they said.

As a means to gain greater control over the virus situation and find more potential cases, many municipalities and provinces have been providing free rapid COVID-19 checks for anyone, regardless of symptoms.

Since Jan. 3, more than 4 million people have taken COVID-19 diagnostic tests, and 36,997 samples were taken Saturday.

As the number of new cases surges and Korea falls under the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Korea is also struggling to find available hospital beds for severely ill coronavirus patients and to prevent additional fatalities.

By the end of Saturday Korea had reported a total of 808 deaths from the novel coronavirus, up 15 from a day earlier, with more than a quarter of them reported this month alone.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 293, down from 299 people a day earlier. A total of 39,040 people have been released from quarantine after fully recovering.

Meanwhile, the country added 24 cases imported from overseas on Sunday, raising the total to 5,297 cases. Eight of the new cases came from Russia, and four each came from the United States and Indonesia.

Authorities added that Korea has so far secured 9,954 hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients as of Saturday’s end, 164 of them for those in serious condition. Close to 200 more doctors and 440 nurses were recruited to care for coronavirus patients.

After facing public backlash for falling behind other countries in securing vaccine supplies, the government is also looking to shorten the approval processes for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and ensure they reach local patients as quickly as possible.

The Ministry of the Food and Drug Safety said the agency aims to shorten its approval process for coronavirus-related medicines to as little as 40 days, as opposed to the usual 180 days.

The government last week announced it had signed agreements with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for 16 million people.

Authorities previously announced they had agreed to buy vaccines for 44 million people, but at the time most of these deals -- including deals for enough doses of vaccine for 4 million people from Janssen and enough for 10 million people from Pfizer -- were not finalized.

Korea will also provide relief grants of up to 3 million won for small-business owners under a new economic relief program that the ruling Democratic Party and the government announced Sunday.

Within a 5 trillion won relief package, the government is planning to provide up to 2 million won for small retail businesses as “business stability funds” and an additional 1 million won to support their rent payments.

The relief program will only be available for businesses that experienced forced closures or suspensions under the social distancing rules.

The government also announced that it would raise its tax credits for landlords who voluntarily cut rent for small businesses suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, to 70 percent from the current 50 percent.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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