Seoul mandates face masks as South Korea battles spike in coronavirus

In Seoul, people will now be required to wear face masks in public indoor places, as well as crowded outdoor areas, except while eating or drinking. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - South Korea's capital Seoul on Monday (Aug 24) ordered the wearing of face masks in both indoor and outdoor public places for the first time, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases centred in the densely populated metropolitan area.

In May, Seoul's government ordered that face masks be worn on public transport and taxis, but the latest spike in cases has health officials worried that the country may need to impose its highest level of social distancing, known as Phase 3.

"If we can't stop it at this stage, we have no choice but to upgrade to the third phase of social distancing," President Moon Jae-in told his top aides.

"The raise to Phase 3 is by no means an easy option."

Under Phase 3, schools and business will be urged to close inflicting more damage on Asia's fourth-largest economy.

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 266 new cases as of midnight on Sunday, a drop from the 397 new infections reported a day earlier but a continuation of more than a week of triple-digit daily increases.

Overall, South Korea has reported 17,665 coronavirus cases and 309 deaths.

South Korea has been widely praised for its success in tackling the virus, with extensive testing and aggressive contact-tracing, but health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said health investigators had been unable to determine the transmission routes of about 20 per cent of the recent cases, raising concerns over so-called silent spreaders.

"If we fail to flatten the curve this week, we believe we will be faced with a very important crisis, that the virus will spread to the entire nation," Yoon told a briefing.

He called on people to avoid leaving home and to cancel any unnecessary trips out.

Authorities have linked 875 recent cases to a Seoul church run by a radical conservative preacher.

Some members of the church who attended a recent anti-government rally had passed the virus on.

A total of 176 infections, including seven police, have been traced to the rally, KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

The government has accused the church of obstruction by not providing complete lists of members and spreading fake news that is hindering the anti-virus effort.

Church members say they are victims of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

Coupang Corp, one of South Korea's biggest e-commerce firms, said it had shut down its headquarters in Seoul after an employee working from home tested positive.

In June, at least 100 cases were linked to a logistics centre run by the e-commerce giant.

The national government had extended second-tier social-distancing rules to the whole country after new cases appeared in all of its 17 regions.

Under the restrictions, church meetings are banned, and nightclubs, buffets and cyber cafes are closed.

South Korea has recorded an average of 162.1 daily infections over the past two weeks - 13 times the average of two weeks ago. Of the new cases, 84 per cent were in the Seoul metropolitan area, the KCDC said.

Meanwhile, analysts have indicated that the country's latest wave of coronavirus cases might infect about 7,000 people through early November with net infections to peak by the end of August.

The outbreak is expected to be smaller in scale than seen previously as testing and tracing have been strengthened with stricter social distancing rules in place, JPMorgan & Co insurance analysts said in a note that was published on Aug 20.

JPMorgan's previous forecast in February that Korea's virus cases in March may peak at 10,000 in its first wave proved to be about accurate: total infections were at 9,786 at the end of March and new cases fell after that.

The recent infection resurgence is largely due to large-scale economic reopening and relaxed social-distancing, the report said.

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