(ATTN: UPDATES figures in paras 12-14)
By Joo kyung-don
SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) -- Beleaguered by a steady rise in cluster infections in the Seoul metropolitan area, South Korea on Friday opted to indefinitely extend its enhanced social distancing in the country's most densely populated region.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said tougher infection disease prevention measures will be enforced in Seoul and the adjacent cities in Gyeonggi Province, as well as Incheon, the western port city close to the nation's capital, until the number of new cases in the area drops to the single digits.
"We have decided to extend the toughened measures with additional measures, and the decision is aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in the Seoul metropolitan area," Park said at a press briefing.
Since May 29, a two-week toughened social distancing measures have been implemented in the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country's 50-million population, due to a string of cluster infections traced to nightclubs, a distribution center and religious gatherings.
On May 6, the country switched to the loosened social distancing with phased school reopenings starting in mid-May.
The measures included the shutdown of public facilities, including museums and parks, while firms were advised to adopt flexible work systems and strictly follow social distancing. Entertainment establishments, such as bars and clubs, were urged to suspend their operations, as well as cram schools.
In the latest measure, QR code-based entry logs for all visitors will also be mandatory for cram schools and PC rooms, in addition to entertainment facilities.
According to health authorities, 96.4 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks were identified in the Seoul metropolitan area.
If the virus situation in the metropolitan area does not improve, Park said health authorities will come up with stricter social distancing guidelines.
In recent days, new virus cases have been hovering around 50, the threshold which health authorities consider as a criteria for the normalization of most daily activities under the condition people follow basic sanitation measures.
The first major cluster outbreak in the nation's capital area came from Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul, in early May. More than 270 cases have been tied to the Itaewon cluster.
Then, a distribution center in Bucheon, west of Seoul, emerged as a new source of COVID-19 infections. As of Friday, 147 cases have been traced to the logistics facility run by e-commerce giant Coupang Inc.
While cases tied to Itaewon and the distribution center started to slow down, sporadic infections traced to religious gatherings began to rise from June. So far, 95 cases have been connected to churches in the metropolitan area.
In recent days, cases connected to a door-to-door business establishment and table tennis gym added concerns for health authorities. So far, 139 cases have been traced to a door-to-door retail company, while 61 cases have been linked to a table tennis center in Yangcheon Ward, southwestern Seoul.
The resurgence in new virus cases in recent weeks has pressured health authorities to return to the nationwide strict social distancing campaign that the country enforced between March 22 and May 5.
However, health authorities have been saying that they have yet to consider switching to extensive and stringent social distancing, citing that the country's quarantine capabilities are sufficient to handle the virus situation.
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