The South Korean government on Friday launched a review on raising the level of social distancing as new cluster infections in the greater Seoul area fanned fears of a possibly bigger outbreak.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said it views the status quo in a "grave" manner, saying it has started to review tightening social distancing by one notch in the so-called capital area, which includes Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.
"We are facing another critical moment, as the spread of COVID-19 in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province is worrisome," said Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip.
"Since the conditions for raising the level have not been met, we have to see how things go today and tomorrow," Kim said, "If the conditions are met, we should be able to take necessary measures even during the holiday period."
The government considers raising the anti-infection measure when daily new infections reach 50 to 100 over a two-week period or when infection clusters that are being closely monitored continue to grow.
South Korea is set to enjoy a three-day weekend this week, with Aug. 17 being designated as a special public holiday to prop up the pandemic-hit economy.
The latest move comes as cluster infections coming from small churches are growing. Many of the infected patients were found to have had meals together or not worn masks, which health authorities advise against.
The agency urged churches to voluntarily follow anti-infection guidelines, such as restricting meals or small gatherings and praying or singing out aloud. Churches that do not follow the guidelines could face financial penalties, it added.
Under the Level 2 social distancing, gatherings of 50 or more people that take place indoors and of 100 or more people outdoors are restricted.
Sports events are held without fans, and the operation of public facilities is suspended. High-risk facilities, such as bars, indoor group fitness facilities and buffet restaurants, have to suspend business, while other facilities are mandated to follow safety guidelines, such as making visitors wear masks and limiting the number of visitors.
While internet cafes, called "PC bang" here, are not classified as high-risk facilities, the government said Friday it will consider adding them to minimize risks of students contracting the infectious virus ahead of the new school term that begins in fall.
"The recent domestic infection spread is quite worrisome," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a government response meeting earlier in the day, "If the situation worsens slightly, we cannot help but review raising the social distancing level in the greater Seoul area."
On Friday, South Korea reported 103 new infections, including 85 locally transmitted ones, bringing the COVID-19 caseload to 14,873, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The number of newly identified local infections marks the most since 88 on March 31. (Yonhap)