SEOUL — South Korea on Thursday reported its biggest jump in coronavirus cases in more than 50 days, a resurgence that health officials warn is getting harder to track and risks erasing some of the nation’s hard-won gains. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 67 of the 79 new cases reported were from the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live.
Following an emergency meeting, the government decided to shut public facilities such as parks, museums and state-run theaters in the metropolitan area over the next two weeks to slow the spread of the virus. Officials also advised private tutorial schools and computer gaming lounges in the area to close during the period or otherwise enforce anti-virus measures.
“The two weeks from now will be crucial in containing infections,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, who called for residents in the metropolitan area to avoid unnecessary gatherings and urged companies to keep sick employees off work.
At least 82 infections so far have been linked to workers at a massive warehouse operated by local e-commerce giant Coupang. Health authorities plan to finish testing more than 4,000 workers and visitors to the warehouse later Thursday. Hundreds of other infections have been linked to nightclubs and other entertainment venues, which saw huge crowds in early May after officials relaxed social distancing guidelines.
It remains to be seen whether the recent spike in infections force back a phased reopening of schools, which had been a major accomplishment in the nation’s anti-virus campaign. The Education Ministry on Wednesday said class openings were delayed at 561 schools nationwide because of virus concerns. South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases per day in early March before managing to stabilize its outbreak with aggressive tracking and testing, which allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines.
KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions, noting it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track transmissions amid increasing public activity.
“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts,” she said. “There’s a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”
Seoul and nearby cities restored some of the controls in recent weeks by shutting thousands of bars, karaoke rooms and other entertainment venues to slow the spread of the virus. The country also began requiring masks on public transit and airline flights this week. Taxi drivers are biw allowed to refuse passengers not wearing masks.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s central bank lowered its policy rate to an all-time low of 0.5% to soften the pandemic’s shock to the country’s trade-dependent economy. The Bank of Korea also adjusted its annual growth outlook from a 2.1% expansion to a 0.2% contraction. The country’s economy hasn’t seen an annual contraction since 1998.
In other developments around the Asia-Pacific region:
— INDIA INFECTIONS SURGING: India on Thursday reported more than 6,500 new virus cases, another single day record. The surge comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prepares a new set of guidelines to be issued this weekend, possibly extending a two-month lockdown in the worst-hit areas while also allowing some economic activity. The Health Ministry also reported another 194 deaths, bringing the country total to 4,531. Most of India’s more than 158,000 virus cases are concentrated in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states.
— CHURCH CALLS FOR EQUALITY: A Catholic archbishop has accused an Australian state government of inequitable pandemic rules by allowing up to 50 people into pubs while limiting church congregations to 10. Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Thursday encouraged Catholics to sign a petition calling on the New South Wales government to treat churches the same as pubs, restaurants and cafes. New pandemic restrictions that take effect on June 1 increase the number of customers that such commercial premises can hold from 10 to 50. “We do not consider church attendance to be non-essential; indeed, nothing is more essential than the practice of our faith,” the petition said.
— CHINA SEES 2 NEW CASES: China on Thursday announced two new cases of coronavirus, both from abroad. No new deaths were reported and just 73 people remained in treatment, while another 518 remain under isolation and observation for either suspected of having the virus or testing positive without showing any symptoms. China has reported a total of 4,634 deaths from COVID-19 among 82,995 cases.
— HOSPITAL FIRE KILLS 5: A fire that swept through a hospital’s coronavirus unit in Bangladesh’s capital killed five people. Bangladesh on Wednesday had 38,292 logged coronavirus cases including 544 deaths.