SEOUL (REUTERS, XINHUA) - South Korea on Sunday (Sept 13) eased its tough social distancing policy for the next two weeks in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, with new daily novel coronavirus cases hovering stubbornly within triple digits.
The government has lifted a ban on onsite dining after 9pm though still requires restaurants and cafes to restrict seating and record patrons' names and contact details.
While leisure facilities such as gyms and internet cafes are also allowed to reopen, under so-called phase two restrictions, indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100, while spectators are banned from sporting events.
Health authorities said the easing would contribute toward a reopening of the economy, before returning to tougher guidelines for two weeks again from Sept 28 during the Chuseok holiday.
"After a comprehensive review of the recent situation and expert opinion, the government intends to adjust social distancing to phase two in the Seoul area for two weeks," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised meeting of government officials.
Infection numbers fell steadily to the low 100s after the government imposed unprecedented social distancing curbs in late August, but surged last week as small clusters emerged.
"The number of daily infections is still not dropping to double-digits and it isn't yet a situation where measures can be significantly relaxed, as one out of four people's path of transmission is untraceable," Mr Chung said.
The Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported 121 new cases of novel coronavirus infection as of midnight on Saturday, bringing total infections to 22,176, with 358 deaths.
The daily caseload stayed below 200 for 11 straight days, but continued to grow in triple digits since Aug 14. It was attributed to cluster infections in Seoul and its surrounding Gyeonggi province linked to church services and a massive rally held in central Seoul on Aug 15.
Of the new cases, 30 were Seoul residents and 27 were people residing in Gyeonggi province. Twenty-two were imported from overseas, lifting the combined figure to 3,003.
Three more deaths were confirmed, leaving the death toll at 358. The total fatality rate stood at 1.61 per cent.
A total of 197 more patients were discharged from quarantine after making full recovery, pulling up the combined number to 18,226. The total recovery rate was 82.19 per cent.
Since Jan 3, the country has tested more than 2.14 million people, among whom 2,093,389 tested negative for the virus and 27,705 are being checked.