SEOUL: South Korea's capital Seoul on Monday (Aug 24) mandated the wearing of face masks in both indoor and outdoor public places for the first time, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases centred in the densely populated city region.
In May, Seoul's government had ordered that face masks be worn on public transport and taxis, but the latest spike in cases has health officials worried that the country may need to impose its highest level of social distancing.
"If we fail to flatten the curve this week we believe we will be faced with a very important crisis, that the virus will spread to the entire nation," health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 266 new cases as of midnight on Sunday, a drop from the 397 new infections reported a day earlier but a continuation of more than a week of triple-digit daily increases.
Overall, South Korea has reported 17,665 coronavirus cases and 309 deaths.
South Korea has been widely praised for its success in tackling the virus, with extensive testing and aggressive contact-tracing, but Yoon said health investigators had been unable to determine the transmission routes of about 20 per cent of the recent cases, raising concerns over so-called silent spreaders.
He called on people to avoid leaving home and to cancel any unnecessary trips out.
In Seoul, people will now be required to wear face masks in public indoor places, as well as crowded outdoor areas, except while eating or drinking, the city announced on Sunday.
The national government also extended second-tier social-distancing rules which had been in place in Seoul to other areas of the country, banning in-person church meetings and closing nightclubs, buffets and cyber cafes.
Officials say that South Korea is on the brink of a nationwide pandemic as the number of new cases is increasing in all 17 regions across the country.
Health authorities say they are considering imposing the toughest stage 3 social-distancing rules, where schools and business are urged to close, if the spread of new cases does not slow soon.