South Korea Temporarily Re-Tightens Covid Restrictions


South Korean officials said on Friday that they would temporarily reverse the phased reopening they began last month, lowering the cap on group sizes for social gatherings and requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry to restaurants, cafes and other facilities starting next week.

The announcement by Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum came as nearly 80 percent of the country’s hospital beds for patients with severe illness were in use, and days after six cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed among inbound travelers.

On Friday, officials said that they had confirmed South Korea’s first Omicron cluster, one associated with a church.

At least two members of a church in the city of Incheon were confirmed to have the variant. They had worshiped alongside two travelers who tested positive after a trip to Nigeria, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said in a statement. Another 800 people who were potentially exposed are being tested.

Churches have been the site of previous major coronavirus outbreaks in South Korea, including one identified last month at a religious facility with 500 members in the city of Cheonan in which 445 cases have now been confirmed, more than 400 of them among unvaccinated people, the local authorities said.

In his announcement on Friday, Mr. Kim said that the government would limit private gatherings for four weeks. In and around Seoul, where gatherings have had a 10-person cap, the limit will be six; other areas had a limit of 12, which will be cut to eight.

Officials said they would also require everyone entering restaurants, cafes, cram schools, movie theaters, sports stadiums, museums and libraries to be fully vaccinated.

New daily cases in South Korea have surged steadily for the past two months, jumping from around 1,500 in mid-October to 5,266 on Thursday, the country’s highest level since the pandemic began.

“Our gradual recovery of daily life is now facing its most serious threat yet,” Mr. Kim said. “All pandemic indicators across the country are sending danger signals.”

Most of those hospitalized were unvaccinated, over the age of 60 or had pre-existing conditions, health officials have said. While 80 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, rates for children have remained low, with only about 20 percent of those ages 12 to 17 fully inoculated, according to official statistics.

To encourage vaccinations among children, Mr. Kim said, South Korean officials will begin requiring vaccine passes for them starting in February.

South Korean officials have also tightened curbs at the border since they confirmed the first cases of the Omicron variant on Wednesday. On Friday, the government began halting quarantine exemptions for inbound travelers from all countries, and started requiring visitors to observe a 10-day quarantine period and take three rounds of P.C.R. tests after arrival.

Source : Nytimes