Business restrictions eased, but only outside of Seoul
The government announced Saturday that under the slightly revised Covid-19 social distancing measures, businesses like restaurants, indoor fitness facilities and singing rooms will be able to extend their operating hours by one hour from the current 9 p.m.
However, the government will maintain the current 9 p.m. restrictions for businesses in the greater Seoul area, encompassing the capital, Gyeonggi and Incheon, where most of the coronavirus cases in the country are concentrated.
Son Young-rae, a Health Ministry spokesman, said in a briefing Sunday, “The infection rate seems to be decreasing outside the metropolitan area, but there is a heightened risk of a proliferation of cases in greater Seoul, so residents of the capital area need to be on alert.”
He especially urged people in greater Seoul to refrain from traveling to their hometowns over the Lunar New Year holiday, which runs from Feb. 11 to 14, to prevent transmission of the virus.
The greater Seoul area is currently under Level. 2.5 social distancing measures, the second highest in a five-tier system, while Level 2 has been implemented for regions outside of the metropolitan area. The government has also banned gatherings of five or more people, extending this measure through the Lunar New Year holiday.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun convened a Covid-19 response meeting earlier that day, addressing the difficulties faced by small businesses that have suffered under the social distancing restrictions.
More than 580,000 businesses will benefit from eased measures in regions and provinces outside the capital area starting Monday.
The current social distancing regulations, however, were kept in the greater Seoul area due to continued infection risks.
Chung said, “More than 70 percent of total cases are from the Seoul metropolitan area, and the risk of infection remains high.”
Local governments will be able to tighten restrictions in their own area, if they want to keep operating hours limited to 9 p.m.
The government also decided to strengthen the punishment for violating social distancing measures by such business owners. Businesses caught violating restrictions will have operations suspended for two weeks immediately.
Chung said that the government will keep track of businesses strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines and those that do not through a “one-strike-and-out” system.
Korea saw daily coronavirus cases in the 300s for a third consecutive day on Saturday, though weekend testing levels are typically lower.
Korea reported 372 new Covid-19 cases, of which 326 were local infections, on Saturday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Sunday, bringing total patients to 80,896.
Daily cases were slightly down from 393 cases reported the previous day, with an average of 354.6 patients a day over the past week.
The KDCA said that there were 46 new imported cases on Saturday, which is the highest since 46 patients were reported on July 26 last year. This included 10 cases from the United States, four from Russia and four from Indonesia. There were 27 cases confirmed in the screening process at arrival while 19 were found during quarantine.
This comes amid growing concern over Covid-19 variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Korea has so far identified 51 cases of Covid-19 variants from overseas.
AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine has shown limited efficacy against the variant first identified in South Africa, according to early data in a small phase trial released Sunday that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Of the local transmissions, 141 cases were reported in Seoul, 109 in Gyeonggi and 15 in Incheon.
A new cluster at a fitness center in Seodaemun District, western Seoul, reported 16 cases as of Sunday, after the first patient was confirmed on Feb. 2. So far, 114 people have been tested.
A sauna in Gangbuk District in northern Seoul reported 29 cases as of Sunday after the first patient, an employee, was confirmed on Feb. 2. Health officials said that the sauna is located in a basement and is difficult to air out, and many people were using it for long hours in a confined space.
Officials said that there have been 24 clusters related to saunas since last October and urged bathers to wear masks at all times and refrain from eating.
A restaurant in Gwangjin District, eastern Seoul, which violated social distancing regulations, added 13 new cases, bringing the total related cases to 69.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]