Asia Today: South Korea to curb social gatherings nationwide

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Medical workers wearing protective gears in the sub-zero temperatures talk at coronavirus testing site in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL – South Korea will prohibit private social gatherings of five or more people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide starting from Christmas Eve as it contends with surging coronavirus infections.

The restrictions revealed by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Tuesday widen similar plans announced by authorities in the Seoul metropolitan area to a national level and are the most serious step the government has taken so far to reinstate social distancing after months of complacency.

Chung said the measures will be in place at least until Jan. 3.

The capital area has been at the center of a viral resurgence in past weeks that has overwhelmed hospitals and increased death tolls and raised questions to how the government is handling the outbreak.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Tuesday reported another new 869 infections, mostly from the capital area, which brought the country’s caseload to 51,460. Forty-eight COVID-19 patients have died in the past 48 hours, the deadliest two days since the emergence of the pandemic. The death toll could rise as the agency said 281 among 14,810 active patients were in serious or critical condition.

The viral resurgence has put pressure on the government to raise social distancing restrictions to maximum levels, something policymakers have resisted for weeks out of economic concerns.

Visitors will also be prohibited at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where residents and workers will be tested every one or two weeks. Churches and other religious facilities will be shut, and restaurants will face fines if they receive large groups and must maintain social distance between people dining there.

“It will be crucial to prevent the upcoming two holiday periods from triggering a further spread of COVID-19,” Chung said during a virus meeting, referring to Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Around 180 skiing, sledding and skating venues around the country will be closed, which officials saw as necessary following a series of outbreaks as winter sports venues in recent weeks. National parks and coastal tourist spots, where thousands travel to every year to watch the sun rise on the new year, will close. Hotels will be banned from selling more than 50% of their rooms.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Health officials in Thailand reported 427 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, most of them from a cluster involving migrant workers in Samut Sakhon province, near Bangkok. The mass outbreak in Samut Sakhon was revealed over the weekend when authorities reported more than 500 new cases, the country’s biggest single-day increase by far. The combined increase of 1,385 cases over the past few days boosts the country's overall total to 5,716, including 60 deaths. The exact origin of the outbreak in Samut Sakhon is not yet known, though the first of the recent cases to be confirmed was a 67-year-old shrimp vendor at a major seafood market. Following his case, mass testing was carried out and many of those who tested positive did not display symptoms. The affected market was sealed off and a night curfew and travel restrictions for the province were imposed until Jan. 3. Many public places, including shopping malls, schools, cinemas, spas and sports stadiums, have been ordered closed.

— Taiwan reported a locally transmitted case of the coronavirus on Tuesday, the first in 253 days. The patient is a 30-year-old female, the island’s Central Epidemic Command Center said at a regular press briefing. She was confirmed as a close contact of a foreign pilot who previously tested positive for the virus. Health officials are in touch with 167 contacts of the two individuals, and have asked 13 of them to quarantine at home. The pilot, who did not mention the woman as a close contact, may be found in violation of Taiwan’s epidemic prevention laws and could be fined up to $10,000, the official said. Taiwan has been a success story during the pandemic, recording just 770 cases and seven deaths.

— The spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney’s northern beach suburbs appeared to continue to slow on Tuesday, raising hopes that a lockdown will be eased by Christmas. Only eight new infections were reported in the latest 24-hour period, New South Wales state authorities said. State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would announce on Wednesday whether a lockdown of more than 250,000 people in the northern beaches that has been in force since Saturday would be eased. She said while the numbers were lower, more places have been identified with ties to cases. Previously, cases had centered on two live music venues. One new case, however, was a nurse involved in transferring infected arrivals from the airport.