S Korea eases some social distancing rules as coronavirus cases fall
Country reports lowest number of coronavirus infections in two months
SEOUL: South Korea extended its social distancing policy for another 16 days yesterday but offered some relief for churches and sporting fixtures, as it reported just eight new coronavirus infections, the lowest in two months.
The slightly relaxed guidelines mean high-risk venues like churches will face fewer restrictions, while sports matches such as the popular Korea Baseball Organisation League can resume without an audience.
"It is safest to maintain the intensive social distancing, but it isn't easy realistically. We need to find a middle ground," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised meeting of government officials.
"If we can maintain a stable management at the current level, we will shift to 'routine social distancing' from May 6," Mr Chung said.
Health authorities have said this would allow a reopening of the economy, while maintaining guidelines on disinfection and preventing the spread of the virus in people's daily lives.
South Korea in March issued an administrative order that strongly recommended religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities such as nightclubs suspend operations. The language has now been softened, allowing facilities to restart operations as long as they comply with disinfection guidelines.
"The government will evaluate the degree of risk every two weeks and readjust the level of social distancing when necessary," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters.
The latest figure on new infections was the first time since Feb 18 that South Korea reported a single digit daily rise.
The increase takes its total cases to 10,661.
Of the new cases, five were imported from overseas, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The death toll rose to 234.
South Korea has largely managed to bring the outbreak under control and has recently been reporting daily new cases hovering around 20.
In a separate development, China reported 16 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday, the lowest since March 17 and down from 27 a day earlier, according to data published yesterday.
Despite the declines in new confirmed cases, authorities are still on guard against a major resurgence, which could be socially and economically destabilising.
The data from China's National Health Commission showed nine of the new cases reported on Saturday were imported infections, the lowest since March 13 and down from 17 a day earlier. The remaining seven confirmed cases were locally transmitted, down from 10 the previous day.
The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the mainland reached 82,735 as of Saturday, while the total death toll from the virus stood at 4,632.
Heilongjiang province has reported 39 new local cases in the past 10 days, or more than 50 per cent of all the new 73 local cases reported in the mainland during the same period.
Most of the cases were related to one imported case in the provincial capital Harbin.
On Friday, a total of 18 officials in Harbin, including a vice mayor, were punished. - REUTERS