Dec 28—7pm—Limit of four to continue into the New Year
Infections: 56,872 | Cleared: 39,040 | Under treatment: 17,024 | Deaths: 808
(As of Dec 27, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases hit a new record on Christmas day with 1,241, then declined slightly over the weekend, while the number of total deaths due to Covid-19 also passed the 800 mark. There had been speculation that the social distancing level might be raised on Sunday, but that did not happen. As there hasn’t been a clear sign of a definite rise or fall in the numbers, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters decided to extend the current social distancing levels from (the originally planned) December 28 to January 3: Level 2.5 for the greater Seoul region, and Level 2 for the rest of the country. The nationwide four-person limit of private gatherings will also continue until January 3.
Dec 22—7pm—No gatherings of five or more, nationwide
Infections: 51,460 | Cleared: 35,928 | Under treatment: 14,810 | Deaths: 722
(As of Dec 22, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Monday the city and provincial governments of the greater Seoul region–Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province–announced that from midnight of December 23 until the end of January 3 all private gatherings of more than four people will be prohibited. The restriction applies both to residents of the capital region who travel outside of Seoul and to residents of other regions who travel to it. Violating citizens and facilities will be fined. This latest restriction is even stricter than social distancing Level 3, which would have limited gatherings to nine. As Level 3, if implemented, would have to apply to the whole nation, this measure represents a regional effort to curb the current trends.
Then, yesterday, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced the nationwide prohibition of gatherings of five or more people from midnight December 24 to January 3.
The emphasis here is on “private” gatherings of family, friends, or co-workers. Workplace meetings of five or more are permitted, but attendees may not meet for a meal afterwards. Family members living at different addresses cannot gather in groups of larger than four, though if more than four people reside in a single household they are allowed to gather at home or eat out at restaurants.
These ambiguities might of course become loopholes in which people conduct “work meetings” at restaurants or friends claim to be part of the family. Realistically, it is also impossible to prohibit private gatherings happening at homes. But the government is hoping that these restrictions will raise public awareness on the severity of the current situation.
So Christmas and New Year parties will be dramatically limited. Popular ski resorts and sunrise sight-seeing destinations will limit visitors, and guesthouses, resorts, and hotels must limit bookings to less than 50% of capacity. Churches nationwide, not just in the greater Seoul region, must now implement Level 2.5 restrictions which limit religious gatherings to less than 20 persons and effectively force churches to instead hold services online.
Dec 21—8am—Still holding off on Level 3, vaccinations to start in February or March
Infections: 49,665 | Cleared: 34,722 | Under treatment: 14,269 | Deaths: 674
(As of Dec 20, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
It was a week of record breaking numbers, with new cases each day exceeding 1000. This was partly due to the free Covid testing available since last week in the greater Seoul region. But the high numbers, and some instances of patients dying at home while waiting for a hospital bed, has had disease specialists and many others calling for a further tightening of social distancing rules. However, at Sunday’s briefing by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, the Minister of Health and Welfare stated that, while Level 3 is being discussed, it will not yet be implemented. The average number of new cases in the week of December 13 to 19 was 949 per day (up from 662 in the previous week), which would be enough to trigger a move up to Level 3. But the minister explained that this would not just be a matter of shutting down restaurants and the service industry. It would also affect the production sector and halt the entire national economy. So the public should first be made more aware of what Level 3 might entail, and finer details regarding certain essential businesses should also be hammered out. Another issue with Level 3 is that it should be implemented throughout the country, not just the hardest hit regions such as Seoul, if it is to be effective. Without nationwide implementation people may simply go to nearby regions with fewer restrictions to visit gyms and salons, for example.
Meanwhile, the saturation of the medical system has been a big issue in the past week, and the government has been busy procuring more quarantine centers, intensive care unit beds, and medical personnel. Earlier this week the government for the first time ordered private and public hospitals in the greater Seoul region to set aside at least 1% of ICU beds for coronavirus patients. This will open up an additional 318 places for high-risk patients. On December 19, there were only three available ICU beds remaining.
News of Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out in the UK and the US has prompted the South Korean public to ask about their vaccinations as well. The government announced that vaccinations will start in February or March of next year, starting with AstraZeneca vaccines and followed by other types. The plan is to finish the vaccination program by November, before the next flu season. There has been criticism that Korea is behind other countries and has been complacent because of the relatively low rate of positive cases. The Prime Minister countered these claims, explaining that the UK and the US started investing early into vaccine development, before any clear results on safety and effectiveness, due to the direness of their situations.
Dec 14—7am—Surpassing the 1,000 mark for the first time
Infections: 42,766 | Cleared: 31,814 | Under treatment: 10,372 | Deaths: 580
(As of Dec 13, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases hit an all time high with 950 on Saturday, then broke the record again on Sunday with 1,030. This is the highest daily number recorded since the first identified case in January. Among the 1,002 cases of community transmission, over 70% were in the greater Seoul region, with 396 identified in Seoul, 328 in Gyeonggi Province, and 62 in Incheon. A few large clusters were identified in churches and nursing homes.
Is it time for Level 3? It has been less than a week since Level 2.5 was implemented in Greater Seoul—not quite enough time to see an effect. And the average number of daily cases in the week of December 7–13 was 720, not high enough to meet the Level 3 criteria of 800. But the alarming numbers are nevertheless prompting some disease experts and members of the public to call for a pre-emptive raising of the social distancing level in order to prevent even higher transmission rates, potentially in the tens of thousands. Level 3 is not quite on the scale of the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders enacted in other countries, as restaurants, markets, convenience stores, and hospitals would remain open. But many other businesses would have to close and gatherings of ten or more people would be prohibited. In Korea, 25% of workers are self-employed, the seventh highest proportion among OECD countries, so the shock of Level 3 would be devastating for these small businesses as well as for the employment rate. However, incremental changes like the ones implemented so far seem to have numbed the general public to the severity of the pandemic, and may turn out to be even worse for the economy and employment.
And so it would appear that serious discussions are underway on pushing the restrictions up to Level 3. President Moon Jae-in personally led Sunday’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters meeting for the first time since February 23 and stated that, while social distancing Level 3 would be the last resort, the authorities should take decisive action if deemed necessary. For now, in the greater Seoul region, 55 temporary testing stations will be set up to provide free tests for anyone who wants one.
Percentage of self-employed in South Korea, Seoul Shinmun (Kor)
Dec 7—7:30am—Social distancing ratchets up to Level 2.5 in Seoul
Infections: 37,546 | Cleared: 29,128 | Under treatment: 7,873 | Deaths: 545
(As of Dec 6, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Covid numbers continued to climb this week and reached 631 new cases on Sunday. The average for this past week was 514 nationwide, with 375 of those just in the greater Seoul region. Clearly, the previous measures taken to increase social distancing have not had the desired effect, even despite the 20% fall in population movement in the capital region over the weekend of November 28–29 compared to the previous weekend. Concerned by the rapidly rising number of patients and the increasing pressure on the healthcare system, the acting mayor of Seoul announced on December 4 that additional restrictions would be applied for a two-week period, requiring supermarkets, malls, theme parks, libraries, study cafes, cinemas, and PC cafes to close at 9pm. Supermarkets of less than 300 sq m would be permitted to stay open to provide daily necessities. All public transportation services would also be reduced by 30% after 9pm.
Then, just yesterday, following discussions with local governments, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced that Level 2 will be implemented nationwide, and Level 2.5 in the greater Seoul region, from midnight December 8 for at least the next three weeks. Certain local regions may ease some restrictions as they see fit, but the key is to lower the number of new cases each day in Greater Seoul to between 150 and 200.
Level 2.5 for the greater Seoul region keeps the 9pm restrictions on businesses that were already implemented last week. In addition, weddings and other events must now have fewer than 50 people in attendance. Parties and events in hotels, guesthouses, and party rooms are prohibited regardless of the number of guests. Karaoke rooms, door-to-door sales promotion halls, and gyms and other indoor fitness facilities must close. Restaurants are limited to take-outs and deliveries after 9pm, while cafes can serve no seated customers at all. Places of worship should move their regular weekly services online, though 20 people or fewer may gather to produce online content. Schools must keep to the one-third capacity limit.