(ATTN: ADDS church's statement, details in paras 2, 9-11, photo)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- The Seoul city government said Friday it plans to file a 4.6 billion-won (US$3.9 million) compensation suit against a pastor blamed for worsening the new coronavirus outbreak here by holding mass rallies in central Seoul.
Despite warnings against holding mass rallies, Jun Kwang-hoon, who pastors Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, is suspected of leading anti-government protests in central Seoul in mid-August that thousands of people attended. Jun, himself, later tested positive.
"Even limiting the damages to cases reported within Seoul, the (damages) inflicted upon the city government, transportation agency, ward offices, the country and the health insurance institution are estimated at 13.1 billion won," the city government said in a press release.
Included in the amount were 330 million won to treat 641 patients reported in the capital and 663 million won to fund people under home isolation due to possible contact with the church. The city also included indirect losses, such as losses coming from a fall in passengers using public transportation.
"But this is merely part of the tangible losses," the city's spokesman, Hwang In-sik, said in a press conference.
"The difficulties that citizens faced due to strengthened social distancing and the economic impact on the national economy are massive to the extent that it's not even countable," Hwang said, adding that the city will take "all possible measures" to prove the damages incurred by the church and the pastor.
The government had placed the greater Seoul area under tightened social distancing following a spike in cases. Indoor fitness facilities and internet cafes were suspended, while cafes and restaurants were not allowed to accept dine-in customers after 9 p.m. The measures were lifted earlier this week.
The city claimed that Jun not only disrupted efforts to trace cases but submitted false documents on church members, leading to a resurgence of virus cases in the greater Seoul area.
The church and the pastor, however, refuted such claims and instead accused the government of not properly containing the virus.
"Health authorities should compensate citizens and take responsibility for not perfectly blocking a mutated strain of the virus," lawyers representing the church said in a statement to the press.
They also urged the government to file a compensation suit against China, where the virus first broke out.
The number of daily new virus cases in Seoul, which went down to below 10 in early August, shot up to over 150 in the days following the rallies on Aug. 15. It peaked at 154 on Aug. 26, according to the data from the city government and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The KDCA said there were 1,168 cases linked to Sarang Jeil Church and 587 related to the Aug. 15 rallies nationally as of noon Thursday.
The recent rise in cases had especially stoked concerns, as a majority of the cases were identified in the densely populated metropolitan area and most of the patients were elderly people who are more vulnerable to the infectious virus.
The city said it plans to submit relevant documents for the suit to the Seoul Central District Court at 4 p.m.
Seoul reported 46 new cases Friday, raising its COVID-19 caseload to 4,904, according to the KDCA. South Korea's caseload reached 22,783, up 126 cases from the previous day.
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