(LEAD) S. Korea opts to adopt tougher distancing rules, warns of return to strict mode
(ATTN: UPDATES first 6 paras with government's announcement; ADDS photo; RECASTS headline and lead)
By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) -- Despite growing calls for a return to strict social distancing amid a spike in virus cases, South Korea on Thursday chose to implement tightened quarantine measures for the next two weeks before deciding whether to switch to strict social distancing mode.
Under the plan, the country will adopt tougher social distancing in Seoul and the surrounding areas through June 14 to stem the further spread of the new coronavirus in the densely populated area.
Public facilities, such as museums and art galleries, will shut down, while companies are advised to adopt flexible work systems and strictly follow quarantine guidelines. Bars and clubs will also be strongly advised to close over the two-week period, health authorities said.
"Considering the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus, the next two weeks will be a critical juncture in preventing the further spread of the virus in the metropolitan area," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said during a separate briefing.
"We would have no choice but to return to the intense social distancing scheme if the number continues to grow," he added.
The move comes amid growing calls for a rollback to strict social distancing following a recent spike in virus cases in the capital area, which includes Seoul, the western port city of Incheon and surrounding Gyeonggi Province.
The country reported 79 more COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest number in nearly two months, most of which were traced to a cluster at a distribution center in a city just west of Seoul.
The resurgence in new virus cases came less than one month after the country eased social distancing guidelines. The main feature of the looser guidelines was the reopening of schools.
"We think the current situation, especially with today's figure of 79 cases, has various implications," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said at a press briefing. "We know that people are very concerned about the situation in regard to school reopenings."
Kim said that it will be too hasty to take the country back to stricter social distancing scheme due to just one daily figure.
"We need to comprehensively assess the capability of our medical system and recent virus spread before deciding the level of quarantine measures," he said. "At this moment, we will focus on finding virus-infected people from those who have been exposed to high infections risks."
After flattening the curve of the novel coronavirus, South Korea on May 6 gave the go-ahead to its "everyday life quarantine" scheme, the normalization of public facilities and other business establishments, under the condition they follow basic sanitation measures.
It was implemented based on the requirement that the country's daily new virus cases stay below 50, while the proportion of cases with unknown links stands at 5 percent or under.
But with both criteria unmet, there have been growing calls for the country to consider going back to its strict social distancing campaign that was enforced between March 22 and May 5.
During that period, health authorities urged citizens to stay home, except for essential needs or jobs, while strongly recommending people suspend religious gatherings, indoor sports activities, and visits to nightclubs and other entertainment venues.
In early May, the country reported a cluster infection in Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon and more recently, a logistics center in Bucheon, west of Seoul, raising concerns of further community spread.
More than 260 cases have been linked to Itaewon clubs and bars.
While health authorities focused on breaking the club-linked transmission chain, the logistics center operated by e-commerce leader Coupang has emerged as another cluster.
At least 82 cases have been traced to the facility, and more related cases are feared to come down the road.
Experts said a steady rise of untraceable virus infections is the real concern.
Of the 303 cases that were confirmed between May 13 and 27, 7.6 percent, or 23, were cases with unknown transmission routes. The proportion of such cases was only 4 percent between April 29 and May 13.
"Social distancing was a shield against the coronavirus, but as people's alertness started to fall back, it created a crack in our society and let the virus invade again," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious medicine at Korea University Guro Hospital in Seoul. "Since we do not have a vaccine for the virus, we need to raise our guard again against the virus."
Some experts speculated that even if health authorities decided to return to strict social distancing scheme, it may be applied to only regions with high infection risks.
Already, the city of Bucheon, dealing with group infections at a Coupang logistics center, announced that it will roll back quarantine measures.
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