(ATTN: UPDATES with details of new measures, special Lunar New Year campaign in paras 7-11, 14-22; ADDS photos)
SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Saturday eased restrictions on previously shuttered or scaled back businesses as the number of new coronavirus cases in the country stayed in the 500s for the fifth consecutive day.
The country added 580 more COVID-19 cases, including 547 local infections, raising the total caseload to 71,820, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Saturday's daily number marked a slight increase from 512 posted a day earlier, the KDCA said.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced the government will extend its current social distancing level for two weeks starting Monday but ease business restrictions on cafes, gyms and other indoor facilities.
Under the new measures, the capital area will continue to enforce Level 2.5, the second highest in a five-tier system, and the rest of the nation will remain under Level 2.
The ban on private gatherings of five or more people, and the restriction on business operations after 9 p.m., will also be kept intact.
However, indoor gyms, cram schools and karaoke establishments will be allowed to reopen on the condition that they strictly adhere to antivirus measures, including a maximum capacity of one person per 8 square meters and a closing time of 9 p.m.
Restrictions on cafes and houses of worship will also be eased in response to criticism that they are excessive, Chung said.
Like restaurants, cafes will be allowed to offer dine-in services until 9 p.m. Churches will be permitted to meet in person for regular Sunday services only, at up to 10 percent of seating capacity.
At a press briefing, health officials added that the government has designated Feb. 1-14 as a special antivirus period for the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 12 this year.
The government is looking into charging toll fees on expressways to discourage travel during that period, according to the officials with the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters.
In recent years, the government made highways toll free during Lunar New Year's Day and the fall harvest Chuseok holiday as part of efforts to promote traveling and domestic consumption.
The third wave of the pandemic began in mid-November, pushing the daily infection count up to a peak of 1,241 on Dec. 25. The daily figure breached the 1,000 threshold multiple times.
To cope with the soaring number of COVID-19 cases, health authorities adopted Level 2.5 in the greater Seoul area and Level 2 in other parts of the country on Dec. 8.
Of the locally transmitted cases, the capital city of Seoul accounted for 148 cases, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province took up 163. Incheon, west of Seoul, had 30 new cases. The greater Seoul area accounts for around half of the nation's 51 million population.
Outside of greater Seoul, the southeastern port city of Busan reported 59 additional cases, followed by Daegu with 23 and Gangwon Province with 22.
The BTJ Center for All Nations, a religious facility in North Gyeongsang Province that recently emerged as a hotbed of infections, reported an accumulated total of 729 cases, according to the health authorities.
The number of infections related to a train station in Seoul's Dongdaemun Ward increased to 12, and those related to a private gathering in Incheon to 15.
A church in Osan, 55 kilometers south of Seoul, reported a total of 14 COVID-19 patients, while a kindergarten in Daegu, 302 km southeast of the capital, reported eight.
Of the total confirmed cases, 33 were imported from abroad, up from 29 a day earlier.
South Korea added 19 more deaths Saturday, raising the total caseload to 1,236, the KDCA said. The fatality rate came to 1.72 percent.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 360, down 14 from a day earlier.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was up 1,018 from the previous day to reach 57,554.