People wearing masks walk at a railway station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, November 30, 2020. REUTERS-Kim Hong-ji

South Korea’s capital, Seoul, on Friday announced unprecedented restrictions shuttering most establishments and shops at 9 p.m. and cutting back public transportation operations by 30% in the evenings, as daily coronavirus cases hit a nine-month high.

Calling the surge in daily cases “a dire crisis,” health authorities urged South Koreans to cancel Christmas and New Year parties, while President Moon Jae-in tapped an experienced pandemic fighter as his next health minister.

Health authorities reported 629 new coronavirus infections, the highest in South Korea since a first wave peaked in February and early March, with 291 of the 600 community infections reported in Seoul.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the situation was critical and the government would decide on Sunday whether to upgrade restrictions to include the closure of karaoke bars and limits on religious gatherings to just 20 people.

Despite tougher restrictions imposed 10 days ago, the rise in cases remained “uncontainable,” he told a government meeting.

Acting Seoul mayor Seo Jeong-hyup said shops, theatres, libraries and establishments that had not been under existing restrictions after 9 p.m. will be asked to shut down, as well as all city-run facilities regardless of hours.

“Seoul stops at 9 p.m. starting tomorrow,” Seo told a news conference.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 463 or more than three quarters of the latest locally transmitted cases were from Seoul and nearby areas. South Korea has now reported a total of 36,332 infections, with 536 deaths.

That was the largest infection in the Seoul area since the start of the outbreak, health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.

Health authorities called on people to cancel all year-end gatherings and parties during a month-long “special virus prevention period” from Dec. 7 to Jan. 3.

“Please hold online celebrations especially for Christmas, religious events and New Year sunrise festivals if possible, and we urge you to not host any parties or events at hotels,” Yoon said.


Moon replaced Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, a welfare policy expert who has been cited for lack of public health expertise, with a career health official, Kwon Deok-cheol, who played a key role in the response to the 2015 MERS outbreak.

STUDENTS ON THE MOVE

Authorities are concerned that university entrance exams – which nearly half a million students sat on Thursday – and admissions tests over the next two weeks could prove to be another source of contagion.

At least 207,000 students will move around the country for university admissions tests this weekend and 192,000 the next, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told a briefing.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the safety of South Korea depends on the test-takers,” Yoo said.

Karaoke bars and internet cafes are popular with high school students and have been the source of several coronavirus clusters in the past.

Under current Phase 2 restrictions, karaoke bars and internet cafes can operate with limited seating and need to close at 9 p.m. There are nearly 30,000 karaoke bars and over 9,500 internet cafes and game rooms nationwide.

Under the next level of restrictions currently under consideration, karaoke bars would close, social gatherings would be limited to 50 people, fans would be barred from attending sport events, and religious gatherings would be capped at 20 people.

Tighter restrictions would be a blow to Asia’s fourth-largest economy, which reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.2% in October, the highest since July.

“Small business owners and self-employed businesses are the most affected by social-distancing measures. We are very sorry for that,” health ministry official Yoon said.More income assistance for small businesses is being considered, he added.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Josh Smith; Editing by Stephen Coates and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Get more stories like this on Twitter


More Stories