(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; ADDS info on tougher guidelines on gatherings in Seoul in last 4 paras)
SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- Daily coronavirus infections in Seoul and its adjacent province spiked to highest-ever levels on Friday, prompting local governments to restrict gatherings to contain the spread of the virus in South Korea's most populous region.
As of 6 p.m. on Friday, Seoul, home to around 10 million people, reported 58 new cases, a record-high number of daily infections since the outbreak of the disease earlier this year. The previous daily record was 46 tallied on March 10.
Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital also reported a daily high, of 62 cases as of 6 p.m. on Friday, exceeding the previous record of 47 reported a day earlier.
The spikes in cases in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are partly blamed on cluster infections at churches where sanitation and social distancing rules were not strictly enforced.
According to the health authorities, over the past few days, nearly 200 cases have been linked to six churches and one missionary society in Seoul and its adjacent areas.
"We are in a grave situation, as the greater Seoul area could face another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks," Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a briefing on Friday.
"We are standing at a (critical) juncture over whether the virus outbreak can be brought under control under the current health care system and whether the level of social distancing should be raised," Jeong said.
The country is currently taking Level 1 measures in a three-tier social distancing scheme which was adopted in June. Level 2 could be applied if daily infections exceed 50 for 14 straight days but remain under 100.
The latest spikes in cases in those areas put local governments on high alert. They ordered restrictions on gatherings and activities at religious facilities to contain further spread of the virus.
Late in the day, Seoul city government said that it decided to place tougher restrictions on gatherings at around 7,500 religious facilities, including churches and Buddhist temples.
Face-to-face events, provision of food and group eating will be prohibited at those facilities. During regular services at churches, the singing of hymns will be restricted while collective prayer will be banned.
Earlier in the day, the Gyeonggi provincial government raised the level of social distancing by restricting gatherings at churches and other religious facilities.
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