South Korea extended its social distancing policy for another 16 days on Sunday but offered some relief for churches and sporting fixtures, as it reported just eight new coronavirus infections, the lowest in two months. The slightly relaxed guidelines mean high-risk venues like churches will face fewer restrictions, while sports matches such as the popular Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) League can resume without an audience. “It is safest to maintain the intensive social distancing, but it isn’t easy realistically. We need to find a middle ground,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised meeting of government officials. “If we can maintain a stable management at the current level, we will shift to ‘routine social distancing’ from May 6,” Chung said.
Health authorities have said this would allow a reopening of the economy, while maintaining guidelines on disinfection and preventing the spread of the virus in people’s daily lives. According to a report in Bloomberg, cafes bustled with customers, parks teemed with sunbathers, and the first Apple store to reopen outside China had lines snaking out the door as many South Koreans — almost all wearing masks — emerged from months of self-isolation. The scene in Seoul on a picture-perfect day contrasted sharply with other nations where major cities look like ghost towns as governments lock down huge swaths of the population or impose strict restrictions on social gatherings. Initially one of the hardest-hit with the second-highest number of cases globally, South Korea has managed to curb the spread without taking measures that were too severe. The report stated that South Korea launched a massive testing and contact-tracing campaign that significantly curtailed the outbreak and kept many businesses and factories open. The number of new cases fell to 18 on Friday, the lowest since the beginning of a surge in late February when the daily tally reached more than 900. Fearing the potential for a “second wave” of infections, Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged “everyone to continue to follow social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines during the weekend.” “We cannot put our guard down yet as there are still potential for high rate of infections,” Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a televised briefing Saturday morning. “We believe that we need to continue social distancing and not loosen it up.” South Korea in March issued an administrative order that strongly recommended religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities such as nightclubs suspend operations. The language has now been softened, allowing facilities to restart operations as long as they comply with disinfection guidelines.
“The government will evaluate the degree of risk every two weeks and readjust the level of social distancing when necessary,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters. The latest figure on new infections was the first time since Feb. 18 that South Korea reported a single digit daily rise. The increase takes its total cases to 10,661. Of the new cases, five were imported from overseas, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said. The death toll rose to 234. South Korea has largely managed to bring the outbreak under control and has recently been reporting daily new cases hovering around 20. Health authorities called the trend good news, but issued a note of caution about overly optimistic predictions. “We are continuously on the alert to ensure we haven’t missed any new infections, or whether the epidemic could be spread by asymptomatic or mildly infected patients,” KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing. President Moon Jae-in on Sunday said South Korea’s progress gave hope that the COVID-19 is “surmountable” in other parts of the world. Earlier this year, South Korea had Asia’s largest number of infections outside China. It has since been overtaken by other countries. “The government will prepare for new daily lives and the new world order ‘post-COVID’ with the unified power of the citizens,” Moon said. US President Trump spoke to Moon on Saturday and expressed appreciation for South Korea’s help in procuring COVID-19 tests for the United States.