S. Korea sticks with virus lockdown rollback despite nightclub outbreak

People walk past a notice prohibiting gathering posted on the entrance of a nightclub in Seoul on May 10. (AP pic)

SEOUL: South Korea health authorities said on Wednesday they had no immediate plans to reinstate strict social distancing rules despite a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the capital of Seoul.

Officials have scrambled to trace and test thousands of people over the past week after a cluster of new infections linked to nightclubs and bars in Seoul’s Itaewon district raised fears of a second wave outbreak.

Officials have linked at least 119 cases of Covid-19 to the nightspots, which had just reopened as part of the country’s move to ease lockdown measures to jumpstart its struggling economy.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said bringing back the social distancing rules was unlikely as long as the daily number of new cases remained below 50 and officials were able to trace 95% of all infections.

“For now, we will still monitor how the current transmissions go and review whether we should reconsider our distancing policy,” Kim told a media briefing.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)reported 26 new cases as of midnight Tuesday, with 21 tied to the Seoul nightclub outbreak.

That was slightly lower than the tally reported in the previous two days.

The outbreak prompted officials to re-shutter some nightclubs and bars as well as delay the planned reopening of schools by a week, but the government has stood by its decision to ease broader restrictions by reopening offices, public facilities and sports centres.

Seoul city officials did introduce a new policy requiring people to wear protective face masks during peak hours on the subway from Wednesday.

Around 20,000 people have been tested since the cluster was first revealed last week, Seoul mayor Park Won-soon told a media briefing, including thousands geolocated by cellphone data.

More than 1,200 of those people were foreigners, Park said, prompting the city to send out automated text messages in English asking people to be tested.

The confirmed infections include co-workers, family members and students of the clubgoers.

Park expressed concern the young, mobile demographic of most of the infected could expand the outbreak.

“This is very worrisome,” he said.

Criminal complaint considered

Authorities in Incheon, a city west of Seoul, said they were considering filing a criminal complaint against one infected clubgoer who they said did not disclose to officials that he worked at a private school.

Investigators traced the man’s movements using his cellphone data and determined that he worked at a school where five students and one instructor have since been confirmed to be infected.

A student privately tutored by the man and the student’s mother also tested positive, according to Incheon city officials.

“If there are more cases where people give inaccurate accounts, the government cannot take proactive measures, we can’t prevent the spread of secondary and tertiary infections, and our entire society can fall back into danger,” Kim said.

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