South Korea eases curfew on businesses outside Seoul

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Saturday eased curfews on more than half a million restaurants and other businesses outside the capital Seoul, letting them stay open an hour later, amid a public backlash over tight curbs to contain COVID-19.

FILE PHOTO: Commuters cross a zebra crossing, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

After using aggressive testing and tracing to blunt several earlier waves of the coronavirus without drastic lockdowns, the authorities have imposed increasingly rigid social distancing rules as they fight the latest wave of the epidemic.

The restraints have pushed small business owners and self-employed people to the limits of what they can endure, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told an intra-agency meeting on Saturday.

So businesses outside the capital will now be able to stay open until 10 p.m., but “the 9 p.m. operations restriction remains as is in the metropolitan Seoul area, where more than 70% of total infections are concentrated and still faces the risk of virus transmission,” Chung said.

The businesses include some 580,000 cafes, restaurants, indoor fitness facilities and karaoke bars, Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae told a briefing.

Businesses that flout the virus prevention guidelines will be ordered to close for two weeks, Kang said.

Most of the new cases were in Seoul, the neighbouring port city of Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province, home to over 25 million people.

Hundreds of restaurant and cafe owners across the country have complained about the impact of the bans on their businesses. Gym owners hurt by restrictions reopened in protest against strict social distancing rules.

Authorities extended the current level of social distancing until Feb. 14, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday from Feb. 11, when tens of millions of Koreans usually travel across the country to family gatherings.

Kang urged people to stay home during the holiday, fearing travel could cause another surge in coronavirus cases, and said the authorities would maintain a ban on private gatherings of more than four people.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 393 daily new COVID-19 cases on Friday. That brings total infections reported in South Korea to 80,524, with a death toll of 1,464.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by William Mallard