South Korea extends social distancing curbs by two weeks; gyms, cafes may open conditionally

South Korea has experienced its biggest wave of infections in recent weeks. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - South Korea will extend social distancing measures, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people, for another two weeks, and health authorities cautioned residents against complacency after a decline in the number of coronavirus cases.

The alert level for the greater Seoul area will be maintained at 2.5, the second highest, while the rest of the country will be kept at 2, Health and Welfare Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said at a briefing in Seoul on Saturday (Jan 16). Current measures were due to expire on Sunday.

Restrictions will be eased conditionally for some businesses, including gyms and cafes, to limit the financial impact of the ban and to ensure the imposition of the measures is fair, the minister said. Cafes and restaurants will still be required to close at 9pm, and gatherings at clubs and karaoke bars remain banned.

"The government plans to ease measures on other facilities that have been excluded from today's adjustment step by step after stabilising the pandemic situation further," said Mr Kwon.

South Korea will impose a "special quarantine period" for two weeks from Feb 2 in the run-up to the Lunar New Year holidays to prevent another wave of infections. The government urged people to refrain from visiting families and homes during the vacation.

On Saturday, South Korea reported 580 new coronavirus cases for the latest 24-hour period, with fewer than 600 infections for a sixth straight day, after they exceeded 1,200 in December. This brings total infections to 71,820, with 1,236 deaths. A winter surge continues to batter many countries.

Meanwhile, the US Forces in Korea (USFK) said on Saturday that it has imposed a shelter-in-place order on two of its largest bases - US Army Garrison Yongsan and Camp Humphreys - until Tuesday, following a cluster of coronavirus infections.

Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, is the largest US military base overseas, housing the USFK headquarters and thousands of troops, civilian workers, and their family members.

It was not immediately clear how many cases have been reported at the two bases, but USFK said six people tested positive on Friday. The command has been relatively successful in keeping infections down to a handful.

"Out of an abundance of caution to protect the force, we have enacted several measures at both installations to ensure we have the necessary time and resources available to complete our thorough contact tracing," USFK Commander General Robert Abrams said in a Facebook post on Friday.

The new cluster was reported as Covid-19 vaccines are being administered to US troops in the country.

More than 60 per cent of the domestically transmitted cases have been from Seoul and its neighbouring areas, where about half of the nation's 52 million people live.

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