South Korea will ban gatherings of five or more people and order eateries and night-time entertainment businesses to close by 9 p.m. as it steps up curbs to fight a record surge in coronavirus cases.
The country will put in place the new social distancing rules from Saturday that run until Jan. 2 as the threat looms of an even higher surge fueled by the omicron variant. Most cases in the recent surge have been linked to people gathering at restaurants, bars and shopping malls, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Thursday.
“The situation is very serious,” Kim said at an emergency COVID-19 response meeting in Seoul. “We are doing our best to expand medical capacity as well as inoculations to overcome the current crisis. However, this requires time, and in the meantime, we need stronger social distancing.”
South Korea hit a daily record 7,850 new cases Wednesday — a setback for a country once been lauded as a model for containing the outbreak without a lockdown. It has also been damaging to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s progressive Democratic Party ahead of a presidential election in March to replace the current leader who can’t run due to term limits.
The new restrictions come just two weeks after South Korea tried to curb the surge by banning gatherings of six or more people, down from 10, in the greater Seoul area. The number was eight or fewer for the rest of the nation.
The spread is coming despite South Korea having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with about 81% of the population receiving two or more doses. But the majority of the new, serious cases as well as deaths were among the unvaccinated. The 8% of the population age 18 and over not inoculated accounted for 51.2% of serious cases and 53.9% of deaths, according to government data.
Like many of its Asian neighbors, South Korea has been reluctant to take drastic steps that would hurt its economy, particularly mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses. Instead, the government has urged the public to take preventive measures including getting booster shots, working from home if possible and canceling or postponing meetings and events.
On Thursday, South Korea confirmed 7,622 daily new cases with critical COVID-19 patients rising to a record 989. Omicron cases totaled 148, up 20 from a day earlier. There were 62 additional COVID-related deaths.
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