By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith
SEOUL – South Korea eased some of its strictest social distancing rules for businesses on Monday, but kept restrictions on private gatherings as authorities were ready to unveil plans to roll out the first coronavirus vaccines later this month.
The decision comes after a subdued New Year holiday last week. Daily coronavirus infections rose again to over 400 before the break, but have dropped since then, when the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 344 new infections from Sunday midnight.
The country plans to launch its vaccination program from February 26, the details of which will be announced by the head of the KDCA later in the day. Health workers and elderly residents will be among the first to be vaccinated.
However, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol called for caution as infection clusters continue to plague the densely populated Seoul district and nearby areas.
“There is always concern about transmission from movements during the lunar New Year holiday,” he told a government meeting. “But if we lower our guards in the midst of lighter social distance measures, infections will rise again.”
Nearly 80% of the new cases reported over the holiday were in the Seoul area, underscoring the continuing threat, he added.
Some restrictions have been eased in the greater Seoul area with effect Monday.
An exit ban at 21 to restaurants and cafes has been pushed to at. 22, while bars and nightclubs have been allowed to reopen, but with a curfew at. 22 and a limited number of patrons.
Curfews have been removed for cinemas, internet cafes, “rocking chairs”, theme parks, large supermarkets and hair salons.
Outside the greater Seoul area, there is now no curfew for businesses, while participation limits have been eased for churches and sporting events.
Private gatherings with more than four people are still banned across the country.
The country had reported a total of 83,869 COVID-19 infections as of Sunday with 1,527 deaths.