(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; CHANGES photo; UPDATES with the latest tally and more info throughout)
SEOUL, Dec. 5 (Yonhap) -- The daily number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea fell back to below 600 on Saturday, following a nine-month high the previous day, as authorities are considering adopting tighter anitvirus restrictions as the country continues to witness various new cluster infections.
The country added 583 more COVID-19 cases, including 559 local infections, raising the total caseload to 36,915, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). It reported four additional coronavirus fatalities, bringing the total to 540.
The authorities have said they will announce Sunday whether to elevate the current social distancing measures as the country is under a critical alert over a bigger wave of the pandemic amid the winter.
Unlike two previous outbreaks earlier this year, the latest surge is more difficult to contain as various sizes of cluster infections continue to pop up, the KDCA said.
The KDCA said the nation's reproduction rate for COVID-19 reached 1.4 for last week, meaning that one patient infects 1.4 people.
South Korea reported more than 500 daily new infections for three consecutive days through last Saturday, before briefly falling back to 450 cases last Sunday due to less testing over the weekend.
The increase in daily cases stayed above 500 for the second consecutive day Thursday and topped the high from nine months ago Friday, with 629 cases.
Amid concerns that the country could face the biggest crisis to date, the authorities have said they will monitor the current pace and decide Sunday on whether to adopt additional measures after adopting enhancing Level 2 social distancing nearly two weeks ago.
What is more concerning is that the greater Seoul area, home to half of the country's population, has been witnessing its daily new cases soar to a record high for the past few days.
On Friday, the Seoul city government announced that stores, theaters and multiple other facilities must close after 9 p.m. for two weeks.
Businesses subject to the new restriction include stores, movie theaters, internet cafes, game arcades, private academies, study halls, amusement parks, beauty salons, barber shops, large grocery stores and department stores. They can reopen at 5 a.m.
By region, 231 new virus cases were reported in Seoul, 150 cases in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 19 cases in Incheon, west of Seoul, together accounting for more than 77 percent of the country's daily new locally transmitted cases. The greater Seoul area is home to around half of the nation's 51.6 million population.
Other municipalities reported new infections, with the southern port city of Busan reporting 29 cases, followed by South Gyeongnam Province with 27.
A total of 159 new cases were reported outside of the greater Seoul area Saturday, exceeding the 100 mark every day since Nov. 24, except for Thursday.
Various cluster cases occurred across the country, ranging from those at restaurants and hospitals to schools.
A wine bar in Gwangak Ward of Seoul reported 16 new cases, bringing the total to 17, the KDCA said. A restaurant in central Seoul reported 22 new patients, bringing the total caseload to 55.
An insurance firm located in Guro Ward in Seoul reported 19 more patients, bringing the total to 20, the KDCA said. Another real estate firm in Yeongdungpo Ward in western Seoul reported 27 new cases.
Another hospital in Seoul's Dongdaemun Ward saw six new COVID-19 cases, resulting in 31 accumulated cases.
A dance academy in western Seoul added nine more cases, bringing the total to 249.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 121 as of midnight, the KDCA said.
The country added 24 imported cases, down from 29 a day earlier, coming mainly from the United States and Asian countries, excluding China, the KDCA said.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 28,917, up 306 from the previous day.
BTS' J-Hope closes Chicago's Lollapalooza festival
(2nd LD) Kim, Pelosi agree to support efforts for denuclearization of N. Korea
(LEAD) Assembly speaker meets with Pelosi amid heightened Sino-U.S. tensions
Assembly Speaker Kim to meet with U.S. House Speaker Pelosi this week
(LEAD) Yoon's approval rating falls to 28.9 pct
Court recognizes death after drinking with boss as workplace accident
150 front-line Army commandoes to conduct joint training at U.S. Army's National Training Center
Whereabouts of 55 Thai tourists on Jeju unknown
Deputy national security adviser resigns due to health reasons
(2nd LD) S. Korea's new COVID-19 cases above 100,000 for 6th day