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SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Sunday decided to raise distancing regulations for the greater Seoul area to the second-highest level as part of its utmost efforts to stem a resurgence of the novel coronavirus.
The government announced that the Level 2.5 distancing, the second highest in the country's five-tier COVID-19 alert system, will be applied to the nation's capital area, which covers Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, for the next three weeks starting Tuesday.
"Under the Level 2.5 social distancing scheme, all daily routines other than vital social and economic activities will be restricted," Health Minister Park Neunghoo said during a daily briefing.
"We've come upon a critical period in the fight against COVID-19," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also said during a government COVID-19 response meeting. "Despite our efforts to tighten social distancing, the daily number of infections rose to more than 500 last week from 400."
The prime minister asked South Koreans to refrain from having private gatherings and activities for the ensuing weeks and to join the nationwide campaign to curb the virus spread.
"I'm deeply worried that a hike in the distancing level will restrict the daily lives of our people and weigh heavily on small businesses," he said. "But we can go back to our everyday life only after overcoming this crisis."
The enhancement came as South Korea has been struggling with more than 500 daily new COVID-19 cases in recent days amid the third wave of the pandemic.
Under Level 2.5, gatherings with 50 or more people are prohibited, while door-to-door sales businesses, karaoke rooms, indoor fitness facilities and indoor concert venues that offer standing shows will be forced to close, in addition to nightclubs and bars that allow dancing.
Restaurants cannot receive customers after 9 p.m. but can offer takeout and delivery. Cafes are only allowed to serve takeout at all hours.
Movie theaters, internet cafes, private academies, study halls, amusement parks, beauty salons, barber shops, large grocery stores and department stores cannot operate past 9 p.m.
The nighttime curfew for those facilities has already been in place in Seoul since Saturday, a day after the metropolitan government announced measures to preemptively curb the soaring infections in the capital area. The city's public transportation service was also reduced by 30 percent.
Public transportation, such as KTX bullet trains and express buses, will be advised to fill only half of their capacities.
Sports events are allowed without spectators while religious services are only available online or via broadcasts. In-person religious activities, if needed, are permitted with 20 or less participants.
Areas other than greater Seoul will apply the relatively moderate Level 2 social distancing scheme.
"We understand that small shop owners will face trouble with their livelihood due to the toughened measures. The operation of 130,000 businesses in the greater Seoul will be suspended, with 460,000 others facing limits in opening time and visitors," Park said.
"But if our medical system reaches its limit, everyone will suffer major damage," Park added, urging people to comply with the toughened regulations.
While the latest policy is expected to run for three weeks, health authorities said they are open to adopting the highest level of three before the deadline, should the number of new cases fail to flatten.
South Korea can apply the Level 3 social distancing scheme should the number of daily patients hover around 800 to 1,000.
Over the past week, the average number of daily patients came to 514, with that of the greater Seoul area reaching a whopping 375.
The country adopted the Level 2 social distancing scheme in the greater Seoul area on Nov. 24. It added more regulations to the policy earlier this month amid no signs of a letup in cases before deciding to officially launch Level 2.5 this week.
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