Health care workers transfer a patient with COVID-19 at a local hospital in Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)
South Korea has decided to reinstate toughened social distancing rules and a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants and cafes to combat record-high surges of COVID-19 infections, top officials said Thursday.
During the 16-day period between Saturday and Jan. 2, private gatherings will be capped at four people nationwide -- if they are fully vaccinated.
People who are not vaccinated will only be able to dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services, according to the reintroduced social distancing rules.
Restaurants, cafes and night entertainment venues will also have to close by 9 p.m. and internet cafes by 10 p.m. Cram schools, however, are not part of the reintroduced curfew, the government said.
The government‘s reintroduction of tough antivirus measures comes 45 days after the easing of social distancing rules in early November.
Over the 45-day phased recovery, the number of daily infections has increased fivefold from some 1,600 daily cases on Nov. 1, when the government first relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols.
The number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has almost tripled during the same period, swamping an already stretched medical system.
The nationwide tally of new COVID-19 daily infections for Wednesday reached 7,622 at midnight. Of the total, 5,696 cases were from the capital area.
The number of severe cases hit an all-time high of 989 as well on the same day.
“I feel sorry that the government had to reintroduce toughened antivirus measures,” President Moon Jae-in apologized in a statement released Thursday. “Over the course of the phased recovery, (the government) has failed to suppress the increase in critically ill patients and secure enough hospital beds.”
President Moon added the government is discussing measures to provide financial assistance to businesses that could be affected by the shortened business hours.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum also noted “the situation is very severe now,” during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.
According to the government’s analysis, the number of daily infections could continue to grow if things stayed the way they are now.
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong warned that daily COVID-19 cases could surge to fresh record highs of around 10,000 as many people are expected to gather during the end-of-the-year holiday season. The daily tally could even increase to 20,000 by January if the pandemic worsens.
“To overcome this critical moment, it is important to put a stop (to the phased recovery) for the next two weeks to reduce the number of locally transmitted cases and overall infection risk,” Jeong said.