South Korea eases social distancing to soften economic blow

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Monday began to allow larger social gatherings and lifted business-hour restrictions on restaurants in what officials described as the first step toward attempting to restore some pre-pandemic normalcy.

The capital area has been under the country’s strongest social distancing measures short of a lockdown since July. Citing pandemic fatigue and economic concerns, officials had eased the measures in mid-October to allow for gatherings of up to eight people if at least four were fully vaccinated.

Under the changes starting Monday, the limit on private social gatherings in the capital, Seoul, and nearby metropolitan areas was raised to 10 people and 12 in other regions, regardless of whether participants are fully vaccinated or not.

Restaurants and coffee shops are now allowed to open for 24 hours, rather than being forced to close at 10 p.m. in the greater Seoul area and at midnight in the rest of the country. However, high-risk entertainment venues such as nightclubs are required to close at midnight.

To use indoor sports facilities or visit patients at hospitals, people must show smartphone apps or documents issued by public health authorities proving that they are fully vaccinated or were tested negative for the virus within 48 hours.

The gathering limits on political rallies or social events such as exhibitions or weddings were raised to a maximum of 499 people if all the participants are fully vaccinated. Larger crowds will also be allowed at professional sports.

South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, Seoul’s No.2 behind President Moon Jae-in, called for the public to respond to the opening-up measures with “warm-hearted consumption” to help small business owners, in a Facebook message on Sunday.

South Korea confirmed 1,686 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday — its 118th day of over 1,000 — with most of the infections reported in the Seoul metropolitan region. About 75% of a population of more than 51 million have been fully vaccinated.

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