SEOUL - The South Korean capital and its surrounding areas will ban meetings of more than four people in a bid to clamp down on year-end festivities and curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic gathering strength because of clusters from social gatherings.
The number of Covid-19 cases here has broken the 50,000 mark, with 926 new cases added Monday (Dec 21) - down from Sunday's record-high of 1,097. This raises the total tally to 50,591, with the death toll reaching 698 after adding 24 new fatalities.
The restriction will be imposed in Seoul, surrounding Gyeonggi province, and nearby Incheon city from tomorrow to Jan 3.
It will apply to all kinds of private and corporate gatherings, indoors or outdoors, except weddings and funerals, where 50 people may still gather.
Announcing the new measure Monday, Seoul acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup said: "We cannot overcome the current crisis without reducing cluster infections that are spreading through private gatherings with families, friends and colleagues."
He also urged all citizens to comply with the new rule, adding that the current situation in Seoul is "like the calm before the storm".
The capital area accounts for about 70 per cent of the total number of cases, with Seoul alone reporting a record-high 473 cases on Sunday before dropping to 328 yesterday.
"This is our last chance to curb the outbreak," Mr Seo said.
The measure does not apply to families with five or more members at the same registered address.
Officials said they will fine people who flout the new ban and suspend businesses and establishments that allow gatherings of more than four people.
The rule is stricter than current social distancing measures for the capital area, which ban gatherings of 50 and more people.
Calls have grown for social distancing to be raised to the highest level, which will forbid gatherings of 10 or more people and shut down over two million establishments. But the government has insisted this should be the last resort because of concerns over the economic fallout.
Mr Seo reiterated: "We have to do everything we can do so that we don't reach the final stage of Level 3, where our economy and daily life will be damaged."
Instead, health authorities are hoping to curb the outbreak by tightening anti-virus measures where they are most effective.
Senior health official Sohn Young-rae said Monday that more measures aimed at curbing a possible spread of the virus over the Christmas and New Year long weekends will be announced Tuesday. This could affect winter sports facilities and beaches where people gather to watch the sunrise on New Year's Day.
Given the new ban, administrator Jenny Kim, 38, may have to cancel a Christmas Eve gathering with 10 friends in Seoul.
"We are considering to gather at a venue outside of Gyeonggi, but that would require four to five hours of travelling time, so it may be too much trouble to arrange," she told The Straits Times.
"Maybe I'll just stay at home and watch a movie."