SEOUL - South Korea will impose the strictest Covid-19 restrictions in the capital area from Monday (July 12) to curb the fourth wave of the pandemic, as the daily cases numbers hit another new record high of 1,316.
The news came as health officials warned that the latest wave may last a considerably long time due to a growing number of small cluster infections, and that daily numbers could spike beyond 2,100 by the end of the month.
Under the highest Level 4 rules that will last for two weeks till July 25 in Seoul, Gyeonggi province and Incheon city, all nightlife outlets will be closed and only two people can gather after 6pm.
Before that, groups of up to four people are allowed to gather. Currently, up to four people can gather at any time.
All kindergartens and schools will go fully online from July 14 to July 25, when summer vacation begins.
Restaurants can offer dine-in services only until 10pm, while facilities such as concert halls, movie theatres, karaoke rooms and Internet cafes have to close at 10pm.
Indoor sports facilities can also operate until 10pm, but there are rules to prevent users from producing too many droplets.
Those running on the treadmill will have to keep their speed under 6kmh, while group classes such as aerobics, zumba and cycling must play music that is under 120 beats per minute (bpm).
Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, for instance, is 119 bpm, while Pink's Raise Your Glass is 122 bpm.
Sports events can continue to run, but without spectators, while religious activities must go online fully.
All rallies and demonstrations are banned, except for those involving only one person.
The nationwide Covid-19 tally stood at 165,344 on Friday, after daily figures went above 1,200 for three consecutive days.
The spike in daily numbers has foiled South Korea's plans to ease social distancing and seek travel bubble arrangements from July, with observers saying that the government may have been too hasty in making the decision to reopen.
The country was supposed to allow bigger social gatherings and longer operating hours for restaurants and other facilities such as indoor gym from Jul 1, but the decision was delayed due to a sudden spike in infection.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Friday that the situation in South Korea has reached "maximum crisis level" due to the record rise in infections over several days.
The number of local new cases reached 1,236 on Friday, of which 77.9 per cent were from Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon.
Small clusters were found in places including a pub, a department store, a restaurant and an army camp.
About 12.7 per cent of the local cases found from June 27 to July 3 are of the more contagious Delta variant, and health experts had voiced concern this could become the dominant strain come August.
Mr Kim apologised to small business owners and self-employed people, who are likely to bear the brunt of the latest anti-virus measures.
"The government will do our best to provide support to small businesses, but it will be difficult to completely make up for the damage," he said.
Businesses in the food, hotel and retail industry have already voiced concern over the potential economic impact of the new measures.
Business owners in other sectors, such as Mr Alexander Kim, who runs an indoor golf simulator club, are thankful that they can still continue to operate, unlike during the third wave of the pandemic last December.
"Having groups of two customers after 6pm is better than having no customer at all," he said.
"Hopefully we can overcome this Covid-19 wave with minimum damage."