The Korea Herald


Cases surge as 'living with COVID-19' starts

Private gatherings of up to 10 allowed in the Greater Seoul area and operating hours lifted for cafes and restaurants from Monday

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : Oct. 31, 2021 - 14:31

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People walk through a disinfection gate set up on a street in Itaewon, Seoul, on Saturday. (Yonhap) People walk through a disinfection gate set up on a street in Itaewon, Seoul, on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Despite a recent resurgence in the number of daily COVID-19 infections, Korea is taking its first step in return to normalcy from Monday with its "living with COVID" strategy.

The government on Friday revealed the roadmap to ease social distancing measures in three phases with each of them slated to take four to six weeks.

According to the health authorities’ plan, the first phase of changes is mainly focused on lifting restrictions for businesses that suffered from operating hour limits under the highest level of social distancing measures since July.

Starting Monday afternoon, facilities such as restaurants, cafes, gyms, libraries and movie theaters will have no limits on operating hours except for certain nighttime entertainment venues, which will have to close doors at midnight.

The ban on the size of private gatherings will also be eased to allow up to 10 people in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon while the rest of the country will be allowed to have private gatherings of up to 12.

The government, however, kept the limit of four unvaccinated people per group gathering in cafes and restaurants.

"Restaurants and cafes are facilities with a high risk of infection. But considering the necessity of meals in everyday life, it is difficult to prevent the use of unvaccinated people," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said Friday in a briefing.

"For this reason, the 'quarantine pass' system is not applied for cafes and restaurants and we will limit the number of unvaccinated people who visit cafes and restaurants up to four (in one group) to reduce the risk as much as possible."

The quarantine pass system requires people to present a full vaccination certificate or negative test result of COVID-19 to enter high-risk facilities such as bars, casinos, gyms and nightclubs. Depending on the venue, the scheme will have a grace period of one to two weeks from Monday.

Regarding the high-risk facilities, the government said such places have an enclosed environment and it is difficult to wear a mask there. The quarantine pass system is an inevitable measure to a safe return to daily life, and that the system will be removed once normalcy is achieved, it added.

Although the country is shifting gears to go back to normal, the recent daily number of newly confirmed cases has gone up again.

The country reported a total of 2,061 coronavirus infections from Saturday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. It marked the fourth consecutive day that the daily figure has stayed above the 2,000s. As for Saturday’s number alone, the last time Saturday’s daily infection tally breached 2,000 was four weeks ago.

With the limit on the size of private gatherings and operating hours for business set to be eased or lifted, worries about a possible spike in the number of daily infections remain.

"As we mentioned earlier, there are more than 5 million unvaccinated people among the adult population and indoor transmission will spread when the winter season arrives. There are concerns about an increase of company dinners and gatherings at the end of the year," KDCA chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said Friday.

"This week’s number of confirmed cases increased by nearly 30 percent from the previous week. In particular, the number of confirmed cases among people in their 60s and older and children under the age of 18 who have not been vaccinated is on the rise."

Health authorities continued to highlight the importance of vaccination in the fight against the virus, vowing to simplify the system so that unvaccinated people can easily get their jabs without prior bookings.

The government will also begin administering booster shots from this month. A booster shot refers to an additional dose of a vaccine to amplify the immune system after a certain period has gone by since the initial series of inoculation.

According to the KDCA, 75.3 percent of the population, or 38.7 million people, were fully vaccinated as of Saturday.