South Korea extends business curfew as COVID-19 cases top 100,000

Authorities announce slight easing of restrictions amid growing backlash from businesses.

South Korean woman walks empty street during COVID
South Korea has extended a business curfew until at least mid-March amid rising cases of the Omicron variant [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases topped 100,000 for the first time amid its Omicron outbreak, as authorities announced a slight easing of restrictions ahead of the March 9 presidential election.

Authorities announced on Friday they would move a curfew on restaurants and cafés from 9 pm to 10 pm, amid a growing backlash from business owners. 

“The situation for small business owners and the self-employed is desperate,” President Moon Jae-in told a meeting of aides on Friday, while calling on parliament to quickly pass a supplemental budget with measures for “resolving the difficulties of the people’s livelihoods”.

The anti-pandemic rules – which also include a six-person cap on private gatherings, a seven-day quarantine for international arrivals, mask mandates in public spaces, and vaccine passes for a range of businesses – will remain in place until at least March 13, officials said.

Moon, whose five-year term ends in May, is barred by the constitution from running for reelection. The two leading contenders are locked in what may be the tightest race in 20 years.

As cases have surged, South Korea has scaled back the tracking, tracing, and quarantining strategy that helped it keep earlier waves in check.

Now people with few or no symptoms are being treated at home rather than health facilities, and only people in priority groups get immediate access to free PCR tests.

Others must first take a rapid antigen test for faster initial diagnosis. Despite record cases, the number of critically ill patients is about one-third of the peak in December, and deaths are relatively low.

Still, some experts have warned daily cases could double or triple and called for maintaining social distancing measures.

More than 58 percent of the country’s 52 million population has received vaccine booster shots. Overall, more than 44 million people, 86.2 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 109,831 new COVID-19 cases had been reported as of midnight on Thursday, bringing the country’s total to 1,755,809. An additional 45 deaths were reported, for a total of 7,283.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters