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South Korea tightens curbs in capital to control virus surge

SEOUL: South Korea tightened coronavirus measures on Saturday (Aug 15) in Seoul and its surrounding areas as the country reported the highest number of new daily infections in more than five months.

The stricter social distancing guidelines include restrictions on gatherings and activities including professional sports, which will be played behind closed doors in the capital area again.

The move came as South Korea reported 166 new cases on Saturday, the highest daily figure since early March, bringing the country’s total infections to 15,039 with 305 deaths.

South Korea stands at a “critical juncture” in the battle to control the coronavirus surge, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a government response meeting.

“Our top priority is to contain the spread of the virus in the greater Seoul area.”

READ: Bus stop is newest front in South Korea’s COVID-19 battle

A majority of the new cases came from the greater Seoul region – home to half of the country’s 51 million people – raising fears about a major spike with a three-day weekend starting in South Korea from Saturday.

The tougher rules come as thousands staged demonstrations in downtown Seoul, despite a ban on rallies in the capital city, with some conservative groups protesting against President Moon Jae-in’s recent real estate market policy and a series of sex scandals involving leaders of his administration.

The protests, with some carrying placards reading “Expel Moon Jae-in”, coincided with the National Liberation Day from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula.

READ: South Korean doctors strike over health plans as new COVID-19 cases climb

South Korea used invasive tracing and widespread testing to contain its first outbreak of the novel coronavirus, but Asia’s fourth-largest economy has experienced persistent outbreaks in recent weeks, mostly in the densely populated capital area.

The recent spike in infections are emerging in multiple clusters, including church gatherings and restaurants.

Over 100 infections were linked to members of a Seoul church alone and those who came into contact with the churchgoers. The authorities are testing 4,000 members of the church, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told a briefing.

READ: 3 new mutated COVID-19 strains detected in South Korea: Report

The authorities decided to upgrade the social distancing guidelines to second stage for Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting on Saturday.

“We are facing a desperately dangerous situation that could lead to another wave of epidemics if we cannot overcome this crisis,” said Chung.

Health authorities had categorised social distancing rules in three stages – stage 1 being the least intense and stage 3 the toughest, where schools and businesses are urged to close.

Second stage limits indoor gatherings to below 50 and outdoor gatherings to below 100, and bans spectators in sports matches, disappointing fans who had just gone back into baseball and soccer stadiums after a five-week delay to the season.

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