South Korea has reported its highest daily rise in coronavirus cases since early March as clusters of cases from churches around the capital Seoul have prompted new restrictions amid concerns of a nationwide wave of infections.
The 297 new infections reported on Wednesday mark the sixth straight day of triple-digit increase in a country that has managed to blunt several previous outbreaks.
The national tally rose to 16,058 infections with 306 deaths, according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re in a desperately dangerous crisis where infections are spreading in the Seoul metropolitan area and threatening to lead to a massive nationwide transmission,” Vice Minister of Health Kim Gang-lip told a briefing.
“The government cannot contain the current spread only with tracing and isolation … please stay home unless you need to go out.”
Officials have also enforced stronger physical distancing restrictions for Seoul, Incheon and nearby Gyeonggi province that prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
Nightclubs, karaoke rooms, buffet restaurants, computer gaming cafes and other “high-risk” facilities will be shut, while churches will be required to conduct all their worship services online.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said the capital and surrounding areas were “back at phase-two restrictions on a three-scale level”.
At least 140 of the new infections are linked to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, taking the total number of cases from there to nearly 600.
It is run by a controversial conservative preacher, Reverand Jun Kwang-hun, who also tested positive for COVID-19.
Authorities are trying to trace another 600 members of the church’s congregation who should be in isolation and would like to test all 4,000 of its members. More than 8,500 police officers have been mobilised to track down church members.
“There has been a real concern over the lack of cooperation from this particular church,” Al Jazeera’s McBride said.
“There have been allegations that some of the lists the church has been providing of members have been partially bogus, that people aren’t presenting themselves to be tested and that some people who even do go to the hospitals to get tested are absconding,” he added.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government would take legal action against the church for any attempt to disrupt tracing and testing efforts by failing to provide accurate membership lists.
At least three other smaller clusters have been linked to churches in Seoul and one to a church in the city of Yongin. Dozens of cases were linked to a coffee outlet in the city of Paju.
More than 22 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 around the world, some 14 million people have recovered, and more than 779,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.