SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s capital Seoul and surrounding areas banned gatherings of more than four people over the Christmas and New Year holidays as the country recorded its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus on Monday.
The national government has resisted calls to impose a strict national lockdown but the governments of Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon city ordered unprecedented restrictions on gatherings from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3.
“We cannot overcome the current crisis without reducing cluster infections that are spreading through private gatherings with families, friends and colleagues,” Seoul acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup said at a briefing.
“This is the last chance to break the spread.”
The ban on gatherings applies to all indoor and outdoor functions except funerals and weddings. Currently they ban gatherings of more than nine people.
Combined the two cities and the province account for about half of South Korea’s 51 million residents.
Within Seoul, restaurants and similar venues accounted for 41.4% of cluster infections over the past four weeks, followed by 16.9% from offices, 15.5% from places of worship and 12.3% from medical facilities and nursing homes, according to local government data.
Police raided venues suspected of violating social distancing rules on Friday, charging 35 people, the city said in a statement.
As of midnight on Sunday there were 24 additional deaths, bringing the country’s total to 698, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said.
There were just four intensive care unit beds remaining in the greater Seoul area as of Sunday, according to city data.
The government has ordered private hospitals to free up more than 300 beds for coronavirus patients, and has allocated $4.5 million to compensate the facilities.
There were a further 926 coronavirus cases as of midnight on Sunday, down from a record high 1,097 the day before. Overall South Korea has reported 50,591 cases since the pandemic began.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Stephen Coates)