South Korea clamps down as virus cases surge to nine-month high

South Korea imposed stricter social-distancing measures, including a ban on gatherings at high-risk venues such as karaoke bars, as the Asian nation that was lauded for its initial coronavirus containment strategy faces one of its worst resurgences.

The social-distancing alert for the greater Seoul area was raised to 2.5 from 2, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Sunday. All gatherings of more than 50 people will be banned, and restaurants will continue to be prohibited from serving customers after 9 p.m. and can do only takeouts and deliveries. In addition, no spectators will be allowed into sporting events.

“The situation in the greater Seoul area is serious,” Chung said at a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures meeting in Seoul City Hall. “The 2.5 level will be maintained for the next three weeks until the end of the year.”

South Korea confirmed 631 cases on Sunday, the highest in nine months, while total deaths rose by five to 545, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The greater Seoul area — which covers the capital, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province — is home to almost half of South Korea’s population, and Chung acknowledged the disruon that the latest move would cause.

‘Psychological Stress’

“The measure would bring both economic and psychological stress to small business owners,“ the prime minister said. “But we must curb the infection numbers now, if we want to have our ordinary lives back as early as possible.”

The uck in cases comes after the social-distancing level greater Seoul was raised to 2 from 1.5 just two weeks ago, limiting restaurant hours and gatherings. In a meeting last Sunday, Chung announced additional restrictions on top of the level 2 measures, including a halt on some businesses.

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The Seoul municipal government also imposed a de facto curfew for two weeks from Dec. 5, shuttering most shops at 9 p.m. and cutting back public transportation operations by 30%.

The central government will discuss whether to add more measures after monitoring the current spread of the virus. A shift to level 3 would result in a suspension on gatherings of more than 10 and all sporting events.

South Korea clamps down as virus cases surge to nine-month high