TAIPEI - Residents in Taipei and neighbouring New Taipei City on Saturday (May 15) woke up to find themselves under stricter pandemic curbs, after the island reported 180 new domestic coronavirus cases and raised the Covid-19 alert in the two cities to Level 3.
The new high dwarfs Friday's record of 29 new cases.
Under the Central Epidemic Command Centre's (CECC) four-level alert system, Level 3 is called after three community clusters are reported in one week, or when more than 10 local cases with unclear sources are reported in one day.
At Level 3, people are required to don masks at all times in public and observe social distancing. There is also a ban on indoor gatherings with more than five people and 10 for outdoor ones.
The restrictions take immediate effect.
This is the first time Taiwan has imposed a Level 3 alert. It will be in place until at least May 28, said the CECC.
Cinemas, exhibition venues, gyms, museums, ice-skating rinks, indoor pools, amusement parks and other recreational spaces will be closed, as well as education facilities such as community colleges, elderly learning centres, study centres and libraries.
"Temple visits and religious pilgrimages will be put on pause as well," said Health Minister Chen Shih-chung on Saturday.
The fresh wave of infections includes 43 reported in Taipei's Wanhua District, where a cluster was reported on Wednesday to have formed among several hostess "teahouses" in the red-light district.
Another four cluster infections were reported in New Taipei City's Luzou District. These 47 cases are a sign that the pandemic is spreading in several hot spots in Taipei and New Taipei, said Dr Chen. He was speaking at a ministerial press conference led by Premier Su Tseng-chang.
Apart from the two cities, where the majority of cluster infections have been reported, the CECC also tightened Covid-19 prevention measures throughout Taiwan, where the alert remains at Level 2, with karaokes, bars, Internet cafes, saunas and nightclubs closed until June 8.
Health authorities have set up screening stations at the hot spots - and the results are grim.
"The screenings are showing higher positivity rates, going from an average of 0.5 per cent to 3 per cent in New Taipei and 10 per cent in Wanhua District," said Dr Chen.
The CECC is hoping for more Taiwanese to get vaccinated.
Reports of the cluster infections, which surfaced late last month, appear to have given vaccination efforts here a boost.
Slots have been booked up until the end of this month, a contrast to previous concerns that some of the vaccines could expire owing to a lack of takers.
About 32,000 people were vaccinated on Friday, setting a daily record since the programme began on March 22.
Following this, the CECC said on Saturday that it will be pausing vaccinations for people who have been paying for their own jabs, to ensure there are enough vaccines for prioritised, high-risk groups, such as front-line medical staff and family members living with them.
"I, too, will be holding off from getting my second dose until the next batch of vaccines arrive," said Dr Chen, who received his first jab early last month.
The announcement of the new alert level prompted another wave of panic buying on Saturday, as people flooded their local supermarkets and traditional markets to stock up on fresh and dried goods, as well as toilet paper.
"It's all hands on deck today, even staffers who are supposed to have the day off… the lines are crazier than Wednesday," said Ms Hung Shih-ching, 27, a cashier at a local supermarket chain PX Mart outlet in Taipei City.
Shoppers at the store said they had been in the checkout line for 90 minutes. Some were using cardboard boxes for their groceries as the store had run out of pushcarts and baskets.
Lines also formed outside other supermarkets, with those in the queue waiting patiently for their turn to be in the stores.
Among them was Ms Tseng Hsin-ju, 22, a personal trainer who works at a women-only gym in Taipei. She said: "My gym will be closed for at least two weeks, and I'm losing 45 students per week."
Still, even though she is upset about the loss of business, she said: "Making money isn't that important, staying healthy and safe is."
Ms Wang Hsin-yi, 30, a documentary producer, is among those who believe the dash for groceries is unnecessary, with the government assuring that the island has enough supplies.
It may put people in danger, she said. "These people are not social distancing in the stores," she said.
She added she is doing her part by planning her grocery runs late at night, when there are no crowds.
Meanwhile, she said: "I have enough food to last me two weeks, and I'm planning not to go out at all. (I'm) trying not to kill myself and other people."
Work will continue for those whose businesses are not proscribed under the Level 3 alert guidelines, although some companies have begun talking about the possibility of working remotely until the alert is lowered or removed. School will also continue.