SEOUL (REUTERS) - Private tuition centres shut for the first time and traffic was lighter in South Korea's capital on Monday (Aug 31), the first working day of tighter social-distancing rules designed to halt a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.
South Korea took the unprecedented step on Friday to restrict the operation of restaurants, coffee shops and so-called cram schools in the Seoul metropolitan area, with churches, nightclubs and most public schools having already been closed.
The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections from erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 238 new cases as of midnight Sunday, mostly from Seoul and surrounding regions, the 18th consecutive day of triple-digit rises in daily infections.
“How thoroughly we implement social distancing this week will be extremely important in our efforts to sever the links of infections and control the spread,” KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.
South Korea has reported a total of 19,947 infections and 324 deaths from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Fewer cars and people were on the streets of Seoul during the morning rush hours as more companies encouraged employees to work from home.
The government has cut staffing at public offices, while many corporations, including tech giants Samsung Electronics , LG and SK Hynix, have expanded or reinstated work-from-home policies.
“The company allowed it for the first time because the number of cases continued to surge,” said manufacturing company staffer Oh Yun-mi, 36, who was working from home for the first time.
A 40-year-old office worker, who gave only his surname Cho, said his usual commuting time was cut by about a third.
Private after-school tuition academies, which operated as usual in March during South Korea's first wave of coronavirus infections, were shuttered.
There are 25,000 cram schools in Seoul and nationally three out of four children - from grade 1 to grade 12 - attended such classes.
Onsite dining at restaurants, pubs and bakeries in the Seoul area are banned after 9pm until Sunday, while cafes, including Starbucks, are restricted to takeout and delivery.
More than 60 coronavirus cases have been tracked back to a Starbucks outlet in Paju, just north of Seoul.
Health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said it was hoped the latest restrictions would bring a decline in new daily infection numbers, cases of unknown origin and clusters of infections by the end of the week.
The infections have fuelled concern about a shortage of hospital beds and they come as almost 16,000 intern and resident doctors are on strike over government plans to boost the number of doctors to better handle health crises like the coronavirus.
The health ministry on Monday postponed a medical licence exam set for Tuesday to next week after more than 90 per cent of medical students due to take the test withdrew and joined the walkout.
President Moon Jae-in has urged the doctors to return to work.
The student and trainee doctors said the government’s plans would flood an already competitive market and trainees’ salaries should be improved to alleviate a shortage of doctors in rural areas.