SEOUL: South Korea on Sunday (Sep 13) eased its tough social distancing policy for the next two weeks in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, with new daily novel coronavirus cases hovering stubbornly within triple digits.
The government has lifted a ban on onsite dining after 9pm though it still requires restaurants and cafes to restrict seating and record patrons' names and contact details.
From Monday, franchise coffee shops will resume normal operations, after restricting service to takeouts.
Restaurants and bakeries will return to normal hours, while Internet cafes, indoor gyms and hagwons - private cram schools - will reopen. Indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100, while spectators are banned from sporting events.
Health authorities said the easing would contribute toward a reopening of the economy, before returning to tougher guidelines for two weeks again from Sep 28 during the Chuseok holiday.
"After a comprehensive review of the recent situation and expert opinion, the government intends to adjust social distancing to phase two in the Seoul area for two weeks," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised meeting of government officials.
"The number of daily infections is still not dropping to double-digits and it isn't yet a situation where measures can be significantly relaxed, as one out of four people's path of transmission is untraceable," he added.
Infection numbers fell steadily to the low 100s after the government imposed unprecedented social distancing curbs in late August, but surged last week as small clusters emerged.
More than 120 new cases were reported Sunday.
Chung warned of tougher social distancing rules during the Chuseok holiday - the Korean harvest festival - from Sep 30 to Oct 2, and urged people to stay home.
Chuseok is one of the country's biggest holidays with millions travelling across the country to visit family in the nation's largest annual migration.
Although officials had earlier asked the public to skip the annual tradition, local reports said hotels at popular vacation spots were fully booked for the holiday.
"The long weekend is forecast to be the biggest crisis for quarantine efforts against COVID-19 in the second half of the year," Chung said.
Restrictions on large gatherings will remain, with nightclubs and karaoke bars still closed, authorities said.