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Eased social distancing rules to take effect from July

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Citizens wait for any possible side effects after receiving the coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Yeongdeungpo District, Seoul, June 17. Yonhap
Citizens wait for any possible side effects after receiving the coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Yeongdeungpo District, Seoul, June 17. Yonhap

All students to return to in-person classes from fall semester

By Lee Hyo-jin

Beginning next month, the government will increase the limit of private gatherings to a maximum of six people from the current four in Seoul and the surrounding area, while there will be no ceiling on the number of participants in such gatherings applied in other regions, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Sunday.

In addition, eateries, cafes and entertainment facilities will be able to operate until midnight, an extension of two hours from the current 10 p.m., if the number of daily coronavirus cases remains at the current level.

These eased rules were included in a revised version of the government's social distancing plan unveiled Sunday, and will be put into effect from July 1.

The current five-tier system, adopted in November last year, has been facing growing criticism as it unilaterally limits the operation of certain businesses, resulting in severe economic damage to small business owners.

Therefore, the government has devised the new plan based on personal autonomy and responsibility, under which restrictions have been significantly eased, taking into account the country's expanding vaccination program and increased medical capacity for COVID-19 responses.

The system has been simplified into four levels, and the benchmark for each level is the weekly average of new infections per 100,000 people.

The lowest level will be imposed when the number remains lower than 1 and will be tightened to Level 2 when it reaches 1 or higher. Level 3 will be implemented if there are over two cases per 100,000 inhabitants, and the highest level will be imposed when the number reaches four or higher.

Under distancing Level 2, eateries, cafes and entertainment facilities will be allowed to operate until midnight, and private gatherings of up to eight people are allowed.

Although the current virus situation in Seoul and its surrounding areas falls under the Level 2 category, the health authorities have decided to gradually adopt the new rules after a two-week grace period from July 1 to July 14, during which gatherings of up to six people will be permitted.

Under Level 3, eateries and cafes are allowed to operate until 10 p.m., while gatherings of up to four people are allowed. Operations will be banned for nighttime entertainment facilities under Level 4, while other venues can stay open until 10 p.m., and private gatherings of over three people will be banned after 6 p.m.

Students attend an in-person class at a middle school in Yangcheon District, Seoul, June 14. Yonhap
Students attend an in-person class at a middle school in Yangcheon District, Seoul, June 14. Yonhap

In line with the revised distancing rules, students will be returning to full scale in-person classes if the virus situation remains at the current level, according to the Ministry of Education. Under Level 2, in-person attendance by 100 percent of students is allowed, while schools may cap attendance to two-thirds of the total depending on the virus situation in their region.

However, some medical experts believe that the decision to ease the distancing rules are premature, as some people may take it as a signal that things have returned to a pre-COVID normalcy.

"It seems more appropriate to ease the measures in the third quarter, when over 70 percent of the population will have been vaccinated. At least the ban on gatherings of five or more people should be maintained until people aged between 30 and 50 have been immunized," said Chon Eun-mi, a professor at the Department of Pulmonology of Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

She expressed concerns that the eased gathering ban and extended operation of entertainment facilities will lead to a possible increase in infections among younger people, many of whom have not yet been inoculated.

Meanwhile, the Korea Disease Prevention and Control Agency (KDCA) reported 429 daily new infections for Saturday, among which 380 were local transmissions, bringing the total caseload to 151,149. Over 15 million people, or 29 percent of the population have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 8 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.



Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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