Virus restrictions are reintroduced before holiday season
Korea will limit private gatherings to four people nationwide and restore a nighttime curfew on restaurants and many other businesses starting Saturday, putting a pause on the living with Covid-19 scheme.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum announced Thursday that the government is restoring its stricter social distancing measures including limiting operating hours to 9 p.m. for restaurants and cafes and 10 p.m. for many other businesses considered less risky, including movie theaters.
The renewed strict social distancing measures come 45 days after easing them in favor of the government’s scheme for a phased return to normalcy, and will be implemented from Saturday to Jan. 2, covering the Christmas and New Year's holiday period.
Groups to restaurants and cafes will be restricted to a maximum of four vaccinated people. Unvaccinated persons will either have to dine alone or opt for take-out or delivery.
Since Dec. 6, private gatherings have been limited to six people in the Seoul metropolitan area and eight elsewhere. The limit previously was 10 in greater Seoul and 12 elsewhere when the government initially announced the phased easing of social distancing measures in early November. One unvaccinated person is currently allowed in group gatherings at restaurants and cafes.
Under the new measures, bars, nightclubs, noraebang (singing rooms) and other entertainment venues will be subject to a 9 p.m. curfew, along with saunas and indoor fitness facilities.
Businesses and multi-purpose facilities considered to be of less risk, such as movie theaters, concert halls, internet cafes and hagwon (private academies), will have to limit operating hours to 10 p.m. However, hagwon for university admissions purposes and related to students’ studies are an exception.
The decision was made in a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, who differentiated between businesses where masks can be worn and those where they cannot, like those where eating is involved.
The number of people that can gather for events and rallies will all be limited to 49 people, regardless of vaccination status, from the current 99. However, in the case that every attendee is vaccinated, up to 299 people will be allowed to attend events or rallies, down from the current 499.
Vaccine passes will be required to enter exhibitions, expos and international conferences of over 50 people.
The prime minister stressed that rather than calling this a U-turn of the "living with Covid-19" scheme, it is instead being put on pause to “control the speed to reflect the changing situation,” in order to keep in check the spiking number of critically ill patients and to procure more hospital capacity.
There were 7,622 new daily cases, including 7,591 local infections, bringing the total to 544,117, said the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) as of Thursday. There were 62 more fatalities, raising the total death toll to 4,518.
Critically ill patients reached a record of 989, breaking the previous high of 964 on Wednesday.
President Moon Jae-in said he was “sorry to the people for the strengthening of social distancing measures again,” said presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee Thursday in a briefing.
Moon acknowledged that “in the process of returning to phased normalcy, the number of critically ill patients wasn’t curbed, and hospitals were not secured sufficiently,” she said.
He also said that the government will do its best to stabilize the situation during the period of strengthened social distancing “in the hopes of continuing a return to daily lives.”
Moon especially recognized the losses faced by small business owners and self-employed merchants who had high expectations for recovery and promised the government “will speedily determine and implement a plan” that will provide as much compensation as possible for their cooperation in antivirus measures.
Schools, which recently resumed completely in-person classes, will also be limiting classroom capacity and return to partial remote learning for most students.
Middle and high schools will be capped at two-thirds capacity.
Younger elementary students in first and second grade will still be allowed to go to classes every day, but third to sixth graders will be limited to three-fourths capacity. Kindergartens will also operate normally.
Of domestic infections, 3,047 were reported in Seoul, 2,140 in Gyeonggi and 509 in Incheon. Cases remained high in areas outside of the greater Seoul area as well, including 345 in Busan, 156 in Daegu and 208 in North Gyeongsang. There were 31 imported cases.
There were 20 new Omicron variant cases, putting the total infections related to the new variant to 148.
The nationwide intensive care unit (I.C.U.) bed occupancy rate was 81.4 percent, similar to the previous day.
In Seoul, the I.C.U. bed occupancy rate was higher, at 89.8 percent.
There are 38 I.C.U. beds left in Seoul, 62 in Gyeonggi and 9 in Incheon, bringing the total of remaining I.C.U. beds in the metropolitan area to 109 as of Thursday.
The Seoul Metropolitan government said that it will secure a total of 333 additional hospital beds this week, including 24 for those critically ill patients, 15 moderately ill, and 294 in infectious disease hospitals.
The average daily cases from Dec. 12 to 15 was 6,448, triple that of the first week of November.
The latest measures come as health authorities warned that if the situation worsens, daily coronavirus cases could spike to 10,000 this month and 20,000 in January.
The KDCA puts the current Covid-19 risk at “very high,” or at the very top of the five-tier system.
KDCA Commissioner Jung Eun-kyeong warned in a briefing Thursday that up to 1,900 critically ill patients can be expected by the end of this month if the situation gets worse.
Jung said, “If the number of critically ill patients and overall cases are reduced through vaccinations and enough hospital beds are secured so that the infections get within a controllable range, we will be able to consider easing measures or a transition to normalcy.”
The government is working to both procure more I.C.U. beds for those seriously ill and roll out third booster shots quicker.
Health Minister Kwon Deok-chul urged people to “delay or cancel private gatherings over the next two weeks and limit contact with people,” and also encouraged unvaccinated people, especially those over 60, to get inoculated.
So far, 84.1 percent of Koreans have received at least their first dose of Covid-19 vaccines, and 81.5 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the KDCA. Some 17.3 percent have received booster shots.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]