(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES with latest figures throughout; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- As South Korea's daily new virus cases surpassed 300 again Saturday, with infections reported in all major cities and provinces, the government decided to expand strict social distancing guidelines to the rest of the country starting Sunday.
The move came amid concerns that the country is entering a new phase in the pandemic, with infections rapidly spreading throughout the country and unknown transmissions surpassing 20 percent, the highest since the outbreak of COVID-19 here.
The country reported 332 more COVID-19 cases on Saturday, including 315 local infections, raising the total caseload to 17,002, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The figure marked the largest since March 8 when the country reported 367 new cases.
Also, all of the country's 17 major cities and provinces reported COVID-19 cases for the first time since the first case was confirmed on January 20.
Amid grim prospects of a nationwide epidemic, the government decided Saturday to impose a stricter social distancing scheme outside the greater Seoul area, starting Sunday.
Announcing the measure, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said the country stands at "a critical juncture of a national epidemic of COVID-19."
Earlier this week, the government raised its social distancing guideline for Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon by a notch to Level Two of the three-tier system, following a surge in cluster infections at churches.
Under the enhanced guidelines, high-risk facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down. Sunday church services are also banned. Indoor gatherings of more than 50 people and outdoor events with more than 100 people are strictly prohibited.
Schools in the areas that reported clusters of infections should switch to all online instruction, starting Wednesday.
School attendance caps are limited nationwide to one-third of capacity in kindergartens, elementary and middle schools and to two-thirds in high schools.
From midnight, all beaches around the country will be closed.
The number of daily infections has been in the triple digits since last Friday when 103 additional cases were reported. Over the past nine days, 2,232 cases have been identified.
A resurgence in new coronavirus cases, mostly traced to churches, has been reported in Seoul and its surrounding Gyeonggi Province, home to half of the country's 51 million people.
Seoul reported 127 new local infections, followed by 91 in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and 21 in Incheon. The tally took up some 72 percent of the total of 315 local infections.
Health authorities said a surge in cases traced to a church in northern Seoul and infections tied to a massive weekend rally in central Seoul appear to have served as a catalyst in spurring virus spread nationwide.
Cases tied to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a new hotbed of the latest flare-up in virus cases, came to 796 as of noon Saturday. It is the largest cluster infection since more than 5,000 virus cases traced to the minor religious sect of Shincheonji were reported in Daegu in late February and early March.
Health authorities also urged participants in the anti-government rally held last weekend to immediately take virus tests regardless of whether they are showing symptoms. Many of the Sarang Jeil Church members took part in the rally. Infection cases linked to the rally rose to 104.
The KCDC remained on high alert over a potential explosive outbreak tied to the march as it is hard to trace the whereabouts of thousands of protesters who came to Seoul from other cities.
Church-linked cluster infections continued to grow, with 176 at Woori Jeil Church in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, and 28 at Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul.
Other pockets of infection cases also kept growing, including 26 infections tied to a Seoul-based theater company and another 17 linked to a group of friends who went to Sokcho in Gangwon Province for summer vacation.
The government said it is not yet the time to consider raising the level of social distancing to Level 3.
The highest anti-virus curbs can be issued when the number of daily virus cases reaches a two-week average of 100-200 and the doubling of new COVID-19 cases occurs more than twice a week.
If the level is raised, its impact on the economy and people's daily lives could be severe. Gatherings of 10 or more people would be banned, and offline school classes would be suspended.
South Korea reported 17 imported cases, including 4 each from the Philippines and India, 3 from the United States, 2 from Japan, and 1 each from Qatar, Egypt, Senegal and Ethiopia. Cases coming in from overseas rebounded back to double-digit numbers from mid-June for about a month, but such infections recently slowed.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported no additional deaths, with the total tally at 309.
The fatality rate was 1.82 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 14,169, up 49 from the previous day.
The country has carried out more than 1.77 million coronavirus tests since Jan. 3.
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