World

Wearing masks in public places made mandatory in Seoul

SEOUL: The city government in the South Korean capital yesterday ordered masks to be worn in both indoor and outdoor public places for the first time, as it battles a surge in coronavirus cases centred in the densely populated metropolitan area.

In May, Seoul's local authority ordered that masks be worn on public transport and in taxis, but a recent spike in cases has health officials worried the country may need to impose its highest level of social distancing, known as phase three.

"If we can't stop it at this stage, we have no choice but to upgrade to the third phase of social distancing," President Moon Jae-in told his top aides. "The raise to phase three is by no means an easy option."

Under phase three, schools and business will be urged to close, inflicting more damage on Asia's fourth-largest economy.

SILENT SPREADERS

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 266 new cases as of midnight on Sunday, down from 397 a day earlier but another triple-digit increase in more than a week of such numbers daily.

Overall, South Korea has reported 17,665 coronavirus cases and 309 deaths.

It has been widely praised for its success in tackling the virus, with extensive testing and aggressive contact-tracing, but health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said investigators have been unable to determine the transmission routes of about 20 per cent of recent cases, raising concern about so-called silent spreaders.

He called on people to avoid leaving home and to cancel any unnecessary trips out.

"If we fail to flatten the curve this week, we believe we will be faced with a very important crisis, that the virus will spread to the entire nation," he told a briefing.

The authorities have linked 875 recent cases to a Seoul church run by a radical conservative preacher. Some members of the church attended a recent anti-government rally, passing the virus on. A total of 176 infections, including seven police officers, have been traced to the rally, KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

The government has accused the church of obstruction by not providing complete lists of members, and spreading fake news that is hindering the anti-virus effort. Church members say they are victims of a politically motivated witch-hunt. - REUTERS

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