Government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus have now become entangled in a conflict with some religious groups.
Authorities in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and surrounding areas have banned gatherings of more than four people over the Christmas and New Year holidays as the country recorded its highest daily death toll from COVID-19 and police raided venues suspected of violating social-distancing rules.
The South Korean government has resisted calls to impose a strict national lockdown but the governments of Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and Incheon city on Monday ordered unprecedented restrictions on gatherings from December 23 to January 3.
“We cannot overcome the current crisis without reducing cluster infections that are spreading through private gatherings with families, friends and colleagues,” Seoul’s acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup said at a briefing.
“This is the last chance to break the spread.”
The ban on gatherings applies to all indoor and outdoor functions except funerals and weddings. Currently, they ban gatherings of more than nine people.
The two cities combined and the province account for about half of South Korea’s 51 million residents.
The new restrictions came as the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 24 additional deaths as of midnight (15:00 GMT) on Sunday, bringing the total death toll to 698. The country’s fatality rate is 1.38 percent.
The KDCA also reported a further 926 coronavirus cases, after confirming a record high 1,097 cases the previous day. The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients stood at 274.
South Korea’s total caseload now exceeds 50,000 – only 11 days since the country surpassed 40,000 – as the authorities struggle to contain a recent spike in cases.
Despite previously tightened social-distancing measures, the country is running short of hospital beds, and as of Sunday, there were just four intensive care unit beds remaining in the greater Seoul area, according to health officials.
The government has ordered private hospitals to free up more than 300 beds to be used for coronavirus patients and has allocated $4.5m to compensate the facilities.
Greater Seoul is currently under level 2.5 restrictions – the second-highest in the nation’s five-tier system – with nightclubs closed and restaurants allowed to provide only deliveries and takeouts after 9pm (12:00 GMT).
Monday’s ban on gatherings of more than four is a stronger restriction than that under level 3, which caps gatherings at 10.
Last week, authorities also expanded anonymous testing to try and find asymptomatic cases in the greater Seoul area. A total of 479 infections have been confirmed through such testing so far, the KDCA said.
Of the newly identified local cases announced on Monday, 327 were reported in Seoul and 237 in Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 85 more cases.
Within Seoul, restaurants and similar venues accounted for 41.4 percent of cluster infections over the past four weeks, followed by 16.9 percent from offices, 15.5 percent from places of worship and 12.3 percent from medical facilities and nursing homes, according to local government data.
On Friday, Seoul police and health investigators staged late-night crackdowns on 60 businesses including bars and karaoke clubs suspected of flouting current rules, the city said in a statement on Monday.
Thirty-five people, including business owners and customers, were criminally charged, the statement said.