Korea to Ban Worship Services, Large Gatherings in Major Flareup
A staff installs a banner indicating that the service is being streamed online due to the coronavirus outside the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Korea to Ban Worship Services, Large Gatherings in Major Flareup

South Korea imposed its strictest social distancing measures since May as the nation globally lauded for its virus containment strategy faces one of its worst resurgences yet.

From midnight tonight, worship services and large gatherings are banned in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, and high-risk facilities like bars and clubs will be closed, said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun in a hastily scheduled press conference on Tuesday. Gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors are also forbidden.

The Asian nation on Tuesday reported its fifth day of triple-digit cases, raising alarm that a country seen as a global model of democratic containment may be losing control. South Korea confirmed 246 new infections on Tuesday, compared to 197 a day earlier and 279 on Sunday -- a sudden surge after daily cases hovered in the 30 to 50 range for weeks.

Most of the recent cases were in the greater Seoul area -- home to almost half of South Korea’s population.

“If we can’t control the virus now, we will be facing mass spreading at the national level,” Chung said.

The surge is tied to an outbreak at Sarang Jeil church in Seoul, a situation reminiscent of the massive church cluster in March that made South Korea’s outbreak the biggest outside of China at one point. The Asian nation has been praised and emulated for slowing the virus’s spread without a lockdown, relying instead on rapid testing and contact-tracing, but its religious groups continue to pose a challenge to containment efforts.

Authorities have also confirmed four cases from the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the country’s biggest with 560,000 members. Officials say that it’s harder to trace and test members of religious groups, which could trigger wider transmission in the community. Religious organizations, where many people gather in large congregations, have been linked to virus hotspots around the world.

Chung warned that if the current flareup is not contained, the country would have to raise the health alert to level 3, which would ban all sports and entertainment events, in-person classes, meetings of more than 10 people and recommend work from home arrangements. That would “have a big impact on the economy and our livelihood,” he said.

The country’s Kospi index fell 2.5% in Seoul ahead of the press conference with retail, tourism and airline companies pacing the declines amid fears that restrictions would curtail domestic spending.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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