SEOUL • South Korea's capital city and nearby areas will close bars and nightclubs, limit religious gatherings and restrict service at restaurants, in a bid to contain a burgeoning third wave of coronavirus infections, the health minister said yesterday.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 330 new daily coronavirus cases as at midnight on Saturday, a drop from 386 reported the day before, but the fifth straight day of more than 300 new cases.
"The third wave of Covid-19 outbreaks is increasingly in full swing," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told a briefing. "The situation is extremely serious and grave."
A nationwide outbreak was being driven by clusters of infections in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, he said, home to around half of the country's 52 million residents.
The country's social distancing alert level is being raised to 2, from 1.5, for the greater Seoul area, effective tomorrow.
That will lead to a ban on gatherings in high-risk facilities such as nightclubs and karaoke bars, while restaurants are prohibited from serving customers after 9 pm and can operate only takeouts and deliveries.
Other restrictions will be placed on facilities like gyms, with attendance caps on religious gatherings and sporting events.
The country last raised the alert level to 2 after a virus surge in August.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a government meeting that pre-emptive distancing regulations might be needed to head off a wider outbreak, Yonhap news agency reported.
"We're at a critical juncture of facing a large number of infections nationwide," Mr Chung said.
On Saturday, a KDCA official said the country could be facing an outbreak that surpasses two earlier waves of infections, if it fails to block the current spread.
Last week, South Korea tightened prevention guidelines ahead of highly competitive annual college entrance exams scheduled for Dec 3, and Prime Minister Chung called for all social gatherings to be cancelled.
There has been particular concern over the surge derailing the annual exams, considered one of the most important days in South Korea where flights are banned during examination time and police escort students who are running late.
South Korea has employed an aggressive tracing, testing and quarantine effort to stamp out outbreaks without imposing lockdowns.
But the country has been dogged by a persistent number of small infections, bringing the total number of cases to 30,733 with 505 deaths.