South Korea extends social distancing rules to contain Covid-19 cases

The government banned gatherings of more than four people in greater Seoul. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - South Korea said on Sunday (Dec 27) that it will extend social distancing measures introduced to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic for another six days, to Jan 3, even as it continues to report near-record numbers of new cases each day.

For the run-up to Christmas and New Year holidays, the government banned gatherings of more than four people in greater Seoul and closed down ski resorts and other tourist spots.

Beyond that temporary restriction, gatherings of more than 50 people are banned in greater Seoul and indoor restaurant dining is prohibited after 9pm local time.

"We will observe the situation over the next week and decide whether to adjust the social distancing measures before Jan 3 when the special quarantine measures for the year-end holidays terminate," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said at a briefing.

The minister said there will be minor adjustments to current restrictions, such as allowing take-out and delivery only for customers buying just coffee, drinks or desserts in fast-food restaurants, a measure already in place for other cafes.

South Korea stopped short of raising its coronavirus alert to the highest level, noting that growth in the number of infections has slowed.

The country reported 970 new coronavirus cases for Saturday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said earlier on Sunday, bringing the national tally to 56,872 cases, with 808 deaths.

That is the smallest in five days, but still not far off the record 1,241 infections logged on Friday.

The government will maintain level 2.5 social distancing rules in the Seoul metropolitan area and level 2 in other parts of the country until Jan 3.

Level 3 is the closest scenario to a lockdown in South Korea's alert system, and its measures include the closure of non-essential facilities from theaters to parks.

South Korea is in the midst of its worst Covid-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. In recent weeks, authorities considered imposing the highest alert, raising concerns that growth could be stalled by stricter measures in the way lockdowns halted the economies of other countries.

"If we can accelerate our efforts to stem the spread just a little more, we believe we can turn the situation around," Mr Kwon said.

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