In this file photo, chairs are turned upside down on tables at a cafe in southern Seoul on Jan. 6, 2021, amid the government's COVID-19 restrictions on dining in at coffee shops. (Yonhap)
South Korea on Saturday extended its current social distancing level for two weeks while easing business restrictions on cafes, gyms and other indoor facilities.
Under the new measures taking effect Monday, the capital area will continue to enforce Level 2.5, the second highest in a five-tier system, and the rest of the nation will remain under Level 2.
The ban on private gatherings of five or more people, and the restriction on business operations after 9 p.m., will also be kept intact.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said these measures helped curb infections in recent weeks.
"We debated seriously between the opinion that we should quickly restore everyday life by further tightening antivirus measures and the opinion that we can no longer neglect the suffering of small businesses," he said while announcing the new measures during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters.
Indoor gyms, cram schools and karaoke establishments will be allowed to reopen on the condition that they strictly adhere to antivirus measures, including a maximum capacity of one person per 8 square meters and a closing time of 9 p.m.
Restrictions on cafes and houses of worship will also be eased in response to criticism that they are excessive, Chung said.
Like restaurants, cafes will be allowed to offer dine-in services until 9 p.m. Churches will be permitted to meet in person for regular Sunday services only, at up to 10 percent of seating capacity.
Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol plans to announce additional details later in the day.
"We are fully aware that the measures we announce today are not enough to restore people's everyday lives and ease the suffering of small businesses owners," the prime minister said, adding that help is on its way.
"The treatment and vaccines we are introducing next month will firmly support our everyday participation in antivirus measures," he said.
Chung also noted that the Lunar New Year holidays are about a month away and called on people to refrain from traveling and minimize in-person contact to protect the health and safety of "our parents at home." (Yonhap)