(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 5,9,11,14,15)
By Woo Jae-yeon and Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- South Korea decided Sunday to extend tougher social distancing measures for another two weeks, as it is wary of a pileup in cluster infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
The country will maintain the Level 2.5 measures, the second-highest in its five-tier scheme, in the greater Seoul area and Level 2 in other regions until Feb. 14, according to health authorities.
It will also continue to ban private gatherings of five or more people in an effort to rein in the spread of the new coronavirus ahead of the holiday, set for Feb. 11-14.
The move is apparently aimed at helping the country smoothly begin COVID-19 vaccinations next month and start the school spring semester in March.
"If virus cases resurge, another wave of the pandemic could grip the country, with the possibility that thousands of COVID-19 cases could be reported in a short period of time," Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said at a press briefing.
The government was mulling over whether to ease social distancing measures to help revive the economy battered by the pandemic. But it decided not to do so as cluster infections tied to mission schools and hospitals have continued unabated, compounding the government's such efforts.
After the third wave of the pandemic reached a record high of 1,241 on Dec. 25, new virus infections fell to a two-month low of 346 on Jan. 22.
But infections increased again and the virus reproduction rate, which refers to the number of people that a COVID-19 patient infects, rose over 1, indicating the virus keeps spreading.
The country will also strictly ban private gatherings of five or more people during the holiday in a bid to discourage people from traveling across the nation to meet their family members and relatives.
Health authorities set a special two-week quarantine period that will start Monday on concerns that new infections could resurge after the holiday.
"The government thinks it will be important to stabilize virus outbreaks as much as possible until the holiday and to lead this effort until the onset of COVID-19 vaccinations," Kang said.
Most existing quarantine measures will be kept intact. Restaurants and cafes in the wider Seoul area can provide dining-in services until 9 p.m. Only takeaway and delivery are permitted from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The country will suspend operations of bars, night clubs and other high-risk facilities for another two weeks.
But it also decided to relax some infectious disease prevention measures at several facilities, such as concert halls, theaters and ski resorts.
Health authorities said they plan to review whether to extend the antivirus curbs and adjust state orders for business suspensions one week later, depending on the virus situation.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the country will get enough Pfizer vaccine doses for 60,000 people in mid-February and enough AstraZeneca vaccine doses for up to 2.19 million people in the first half of this year.
The nation plans to carry out a pan-government mock training for COVID-19 vaccinations between Monday and Wednesday.
The country added 355 more COVID-19 cases Sunday, including 325 local infections, raising the total caseload to 78,205, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
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