The government decided Sunday to extend its current social distancing guidelines for another week as the country seeks tighter control of the new coronavirus ahead of a long holiday week approaching next week.
Areas outside Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon have been under Level 2 social distancing measures for a month since Aug. 23. They were initially planned to end Sunday at midnight.
With the Sunday decision, all parts of the country will be on Level 2 social distancing until Sept. 27. Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, the epicenter of the latest outbreak, returned to Level 2 last week after two weeks at Level 2.5.
“Recently, areas outside Greater Seoul have been reporting some 20 daily cases. Their situation is better than that of Seoul and its adjacent areas but we cannot loosen up because of persistent occurrences of new cluster infections coupled with untraceable cases,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a meeting of the Central Disease Control Headquarters on Sunday.
Under Level 2 social distancing in a three-tier system, schools stay open but there is a cap on how much of the student body can attend in-person classes, either one-third or two-thirds of the total. Restaurants and shops are allowed to operate as long as they comply with virus control rules including maintaining customer entry logs. Indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor events with 100 or more people are banned. Indoor public facilities such as museums, art galleries and libraries must shut down.
“Before the Chuseok holiday starts, we need to make sure that new daily cases remain at double-digit levels,” Chung said.
On Sept. 30, the country enters the five-day Chuseok fall harvest holiday, with National Foundation Day falling during the same period, causing concern about the potential for another resurgence.
For the first time in more than a month, the daily count of new coronavirus cases in South Korea fell below 100 Sunday.
There were over 400 cases reported in mid-August, largely due to sporadic infection clusters in Seoul and the surrounding area.
The country reported 82 new COVID-19 cases for the 24 hours ending Saturday at midnight, including 72 locally transmitted infections, raising the total caseload to 22,975, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Five more patients died from the virus, raising the death toll to 383. The fatality rate stood at 1.67 percent.
The number of diagnostic tests conducted Saturday was 7,539, compared with 12,797 on Friday.
Sunday’s tally shows a sharp decrease from 441 cases on Aug. 27. The number of new cases per day has gradually declined as health authorities introduced stronger antivirus measures for the indoor operation of businesses, such as restaurants and cafes, in response to the coronavirus resurgence.
Starting Sept. 13, the government cautiously relaxed its social distancing guidelines for Greater Seoul for two weeks, moving from Level 2.5 to Level 2 amid an outcry from mom-and-pop store owners.
In recent days some municipal governments such as those in the southeastern city of Gwangju and Daejeon, located in the central part of the country, which were less affected by the resurgence than other parts of the country, relaxed their regulations on night entertainment facilities such as karaoke bars, allowing them to operate until 1 a.m. from Monday.
Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, attributed the drop in the number of new cases to the patience and cooperation of the public, while urging people to remain vigilant during upcoming public holidays.
“The Chuseok holiday and National Foundation Day will be critical moments. Please refrain from traveling to hometowns and popular tourism spots,” he tweeted Sunday.
Of the 72 new locally transmitted infections, 28 were in Seoul, 24 in Gyeonggi Province and three in Incheon. Busan had six new cases and North Gyeongsang Province had four.
Untraceable infections and sporadic infection clusters continue to cause concern.
Infections tied to the anti-government rally in Seoul on Aug. 15 came to 616 as of noon, up three from the previous day.
According to a press release from the Seoul Metropolitan Government on Sunday morning, three more people tied to a telecommunication store in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, were confirmed to have contracted the virus, raising the total to seven. A sauna in Gwanak-gu added three new cases while a real estate firm in Gangnam-gu added one, bringing the respective total numbers of cases in those districts to six and 13. The city government was carrying out contact tracing in 12 cases.
On Saturday, the Central Disease Control Headquarters said untraceable cases accounted for 530 of the 1,883 cases reported during the two weeks that started Sept. 6. The figure, which amounts to 28.1 percent, marked the highest since April.
Of the 10 new imported cases, six were detected at quarantine checkpoints at airports and harbors.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 20,158, up 188 from the previous day. The recovery rate for patients infected with the new coronavirus stood at 87.74 percent.
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org)