SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea on Saturday announced stronger social distancing restrictions for its greater capital area where a surge in COVID-19 cases has threatened to erase the hard-won gains against the virus.
The two-week measures starting Sunday will allow authorities in Seoul and towns in neighboring Gyeonggi Province to shut down high-risk facilities such as nightclubs, karaoke rooms, movie theaters and buffet restaurants if they fail to properly enforce preventive measures, including distancing, temperatures checks, keeping customer lists and requiring masks.
Gatherings of more than 50 people will be discouraged. Churches will be advised to shift their services online.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo revealed the measures hours after the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 166 newly confirmed cases, the highest daily jump in five months.
“The current situation looks like an early stage of a massive round of transmissions,” Park said. “If we fail to properly control the spread now, a broader and quicker spread of the virus would spike the number of patients and reach nationwide.”
Officials have previously resisted calls to enforce stronger distancing measures, citing concerns for the fragile economy that policymakers say could possibly shrink for the first time in two decades.
South Korea’s caseload is now at 15,039, including 305 deaths.
The KCDC said 155 of the new infections were local, mostly from the densely populated Seoul area where authorities scurried to shut down thousands of churches.
Many of them had failed to properly enforce preventive measures, allowing worshipers to take off their masks, sing in choirs or eat together in diners.
Other clusters have been tied to nursing homes, schools, restaurants, outdoor markets and door-to-door salespeople.
Officials also worried about demonstrations by thousands of anti-government protesters in Seoul on Saturday, the 75th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— India’s confirmed coronavirus cases have crossed 2.5 million with another biggest single-day spike of 65,002 in the past 24 hours. India is behind the United States and Brazil in the number of cases. The Health Ministry on Saturday also reported another 996 deaths for a total of 49,036. The average daily reported cases jumped from around 15,000 in the first week of July to more than 50,000 at the beginning of August. The Health Ministry said the rise shows the extent of testing with 800,000 carried out in a single day. But experts say India needs to pursue testing more vigorously. India’s two-month lockdown imposed nationwide in late March kept infections low. But it has eased and is now largely being enforced in high-risk areas. The new cases spiked after India reopened shops and manufacturing and allowed hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to return to their homes from coronavirus-hit regions. Subways, schools and movie theaters remain closed.
— The Australian state of Victoria continues to flatten the curve in its wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the hard-hit area. It reported four more deaths and 303 new cases in the past 24 hours. It’s the second-lowest daily figure in Victoria this month after 278 cases on Thursday. Victoria’s daily numbers are gradually decreasing, with the seven-day average down to 344 from 521 a week ago. But authorities warn there is more progress needed before lockdown restrictions in the city of Melbourne can be eased. Melbourne residents and those in a nearby shire remain subject to strict nighttime curfews, time limits on outdoor exercise, distance allowed from home, mandatory public mask wearing and shutdowns of non-essential industries. Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton says, "We could not conceive of opening up with 200 cases a day. We couldn’t do it with 100 cases a day. We have to head for the lowest possible number.” The four deaths announced Saturday take the state’s toll to 293 and the Australian COVID-19 death total to 379.
— China’s government reported 22 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday. Eight were acquired locally, including seven in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the National Health Commission reported. The rest were found in travelers who arrived from abroad. The raised the number of confirmed cases on China’s mainland, where the pandemic began in December, to 84,808, with 4,634 deaths.
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