S Korea eases COVID curbs for businesses, plans vaccine roll-out

Authorities push back curfews for restaurants and cafes, allows bars and clubs to open, but keep limits on private gatherings.

A social distancing sign is seen as passengers wait to board planes on the eve of Lunar New Year holiday at the domestic flight terminal of Gimpo airport in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, February 11, 2021. The signs read: 'Keep together'. [Ahn Young-joon/ AP]

South Korea eased some of its strictest social distancing rules for businesses on Monday but kept limits on private gatherings as authorities prepared to unveil plans for the roll out of the first coronavirus vaccines later this month.

The decision comes after a subdued Lunar New Year holiday last week.

Daily coronavirus infections rebounded to more than 400 ahead of the break but have dropped since then with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reporting 344 new infections as of midnight (15:00 GMT) on Sunday.

The Yonhap news agency said the drop was in part because fewer people were tested for COVID-19 over the four-day Lunar New Year holiday.

The country is planning to start its vaccination programme from February 26, with details of the campaign to be announced by the head of the KDCA later on Monday. Healthcare workers and older residents will be among the first to be vaccinated.

South Korea approved the use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the Oxford University and British drugmaker AstraZeneca last week.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol urged caution, however, as infection clusters continue to plague the densely populated capital of Seoul and neighbouring areas.

“There is always a concern of transmission from movements during the Lunar New Year holiday,” he told a government meeting. “But if we lower our guards amid easier social distancing measures, infections will rise again.”

Nearly 80 percent of the new cases reported over the holiday were in the Seoul area, highlighting the continued threat, he added.

Some restrictions were eased in the capital and its surrounding suburbs from Monday.

A 9pm (12:00 GMT) curfew for restaurants and cafes has been pushed to 10pm (13:00 GMT), while bars and nightclubs have been allowed to reopen, but with a 10pm curfew and a limited number of patrons.

Curfews have been removed for cinemas, internet cafes, theme parks, large supermarkets, and hair salons.

Outside of the greater Seoul area, there are now no limits on business operating hours, while attendance limits have been eased for churches and sports events.

Private gatherings of more than four people are still banned across the country, but reunions of immediate family members are now allowed.

The country had reported a total of 83,869 COVID-19 infections as of Sunday, with 1,527 deaths.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters