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(3rd LD) New virus cases in 500s for 6th day; tougher curbs partially eased

Time of publication18:40 January 17, 2021

기사 본문 인쇄 및 글자 확대/축소

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 17-19)

SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases remained in the 500s for the sixth consecutive day Sunday, as the country partially eased restrictions on cafes and gyms to strike a balance between maintaining social distancing and easing the burden on virus-hit businesses.

The country added 520 more COVID-19 cases, including 20 imported infections, raising the total caseload to 72,340, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

Sunday's daily number marked a sharp fall from 580 posted a day earlier.

The third wave of the pandemic has shown signs of slowing in recent weeks, compared with late December when the daily infections hovered over 1,000 multiple times.

The average daily number of locally infected people stood at 499 over the past week, falling below 500 for the first time since the third wave of the pandemic began in mid-November.

Health authorities said they remain alert against the virus as sporadic infections have continued to pop up in nursing homes, churches and hospitals across the nation.

A medical worker cleans a temporary COVID-19 screening station set up in front of Seoul Station on Jan. 16, 2021. (Yonhap)
A medical worker cleans a temporary COVID-19 screening station set up in front of Seoul Station on Jan. 16, 2021. (Yonhap)

The slowdown in virus cases prompted health authorities to ease tough restrictions on previously shuttered or scaled back businesses, which have suffered revenue losses.

The government said Saturday it 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.

The government also designated Feb. 1-14 as a special antivirus period for the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 12 this year.

Employees of a cafe in the southeastern city of Daegu set up tables on Jan. 17, 2021, one day before the government eased social distancing regulations on coffee shops. (Yonhap)
Employees of a cafe in the southeastern city of Daegu set up tables on Jan. 17, 2021, one day before the government eased social distancing regulations on coffee shops. (Yonhap)

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said the government decided to conditionally ease the distancing measures considering financial difficulties suffered by small merchants and growing pandemic fatigue, but urged people to remain vigilant about distancing measures to contain the virus.

"The government will closely monitor the situations in the next two weeks," Chung said during a COVID-19 response meeting. "We will consider additional adjustment of antivirus measures if needed."

Health officials said the third wave of the pandemic has been trending downward, driven by reduced infections in multi-use facilities under tight distancing guidelines, but remained wary of group infections in high-risk groups, including nursing homes and hospitals.

"There is also risk of virus resurgence at any time," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said. "We can allow more businesses to open only after group infections do not occur in multi-use facilities that resume operation this time."

Sohn said authorities will review the virus situation for the next two weeks and decide whether to extend the gathering restriction until the designated Feb. 1-14 special antivirus campaign period around the Lunar New Year.

Amid a loosening of controls on gatherings at religious facilities, Sohn stressed that it was important for religious establishments to adhere strictly to disease control measures.

"We will be able to review allowing broader religious activities when the risk (of transmissions from religious establishments) reduces," Sohn said.

Of the locally transmitted cases, the capital city of Seoul accounted for 142 cases, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province took up 173. Incheon, west of Seoul, had 35 new cases. The greater Seoul area accounts for around half of the nation's 51 million population.

The BTJ Center for All Nations, a religious facility in North Gyeongsang Province that recently emerged as a hotbed of infections, reported seven additional cases to reach an accumulated total of 763.

According to officials, more than 3,000 people across the nation are estimated to have been exposed to the church-traced potential infections, and over 1,000 have not been tested yet, raising concerns over infections by silent spreaders.

An employee at a gym in Yongin, south of Seoul, disinfects fitness equipment on Jan. 17, 2021, to prepare for opening as the government eases restrictions on indoor sports facilities. (Yonhap)
An employee at a gym in Yongin, south of Seoul, disinfects fitness equipment on Jan. 17, 2021, to prepare for opening as the government eases restrictions on indoor sports facilities. (Yonhap)

A nursing home in eastern Seoul registered six additional cases, bringing the total to 24.

The Dongbu Detention Center in eastern Seoul has reported a total of 1,221 cases, with the tenth round of testing on its 460 employees and 500 inmates currently under way, the justice ministry said.

On Sunday, United States Forces Korea ordered its service members in garrisons in Seoul and Pyeongtaek, some 70 kilometers south of the capital, to stay at home after five additional cases involving American soldiers and civilian workers as well as a Korean civilian worker were reported Friday.

South Korea added 13 more deaths Saturday, raising the total caseload to 1,249, the KDCA said.

The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 352, down 360 from a day earlier.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was up 699 from the previous day to reach 58,253.

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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