(ATTN: UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGES photo)
SEOUL, June 1 (Yonhap) -- Cluster infections at churches are again putting health authorities on edge Monday following a series of mass infections tied to clubs and a distribution center after the country eased social distancing and millions of students went back to schools.
South Korea reported 35 additional cases of the new coronavirus, including 30 local infections, raising the total caseload to 11,503, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Monday's tally marked a slight rise from 27 identified the previous day. But the daily number of new cases appears to be on a downward trend after hitting a nearly two-month high of 75 on Thursday.
In yet another alarming sign of further spread in the Seoul metropolitan area, 23 cases have been traced to 13 small churches in Incheon, west of Seoul, and Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital.
Health authorities are again awakened by a steady rise in new cases connected to religious gatherings where worshipers gather without fully complying with hygiene steps.
Since May, there have been 74 cases linked to religious events nationwide, the KCDC said.
In February, the country saw a sharp rise in virus cases tied to church services of a minor sect in the southeastern city of Daegu, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Until infection risks fall in the greater Seoul area, we ask people not to hold offline religious gatherings," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a briefing.
The country is still grappling with cases traced to a logistics center run by e-commerce leader Coupang in Bucheon, just west of Seoul, and infections tied to Seoul's nightlife area of Itaewon.
At least 112 cases have been linked to the distribution facility since the first patient was confirmed in late May.
The total caseload tied to the Itaewon outbreak reached 270 as of noon.
"Seoul's metropolitan area needs more stringent responses as new virus infections and cases whose transmission routes are not traceable have sprung up sporadically," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said in a separate briefing.
The Gyeonggi provincial government ordered citizens not to gather at infection-prone facilities, such as warehouses, call centers, and funeral and wedding halls, for two weeks until June 24.
Incheon issued similar orders to around 4,200 religious facilities to stem community spread.
Alarmed by the spike in virus cases, health authorities have imposed a tighter social distancing campaign in the densely populated metropolitan area of Seoul and the surrounding region over the next two weeks through June 14.
After 45 days of stricter social distancing, the country switched to the "everyday life quarantine" scheme in early May, enabling citizens to carry out social and economic activities under quarantine rules.
Health authorities remain on alert over further community spread as more students are scheduled to go back to schools this week.
The third phase of school reopenings will be ready Wednesday for some 1.8 million students.
Following a monthslong closure due to the virus outbreak, high school seniors became the first to attend in-person classes on May 20. The fourth and last phase of school resumptions is set for June 8.
The education ministry said as of 10 a.m., 607 schools nationwide suspended or delayed reopening due to the pandemic.
The KCDC, meanwhile, unveiled quarantine measures for beaches as some 270 beaches across the country are set to open for the summer season.
The agency called on citizens to use relatively small beaches and refrain from making group visits to reduce infection risks.
The country added five imported cases and reported one additional death, raising the total death toll to 271. The fatality rate was 2.36 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,422, up 17 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 921,391 tests since Jan. 3.
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