SEOUL: South Korea on Thursday (May 28) re-imposed a series of COVID-19 social distancing measures it had eased early this month, as a series of clusters threatened to challenge its success in containing the epidemic.
The country has been held up as a global model in how to curb the virus, but reported its biggest spike - 79 new cases - in nearly two months as life appeared returning to normal.
The new cases - mostly centred in the Seoul metropolitan area where half the South Korean population lives - prompted officials to strengthen social distancing rules that were eased on May 6.
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Museums, parks and art galleries will all be closed again from Friday for two weeks, said health minister Park Neung-hoo, while companies were urged to re-introduce flexible working, among other measures.
"We have decided to strengthen all quarantine measures in the metropolitan area for two weeks from tomorrow to Jun 14," he said.
Citizens were also advised to refrain from social gatherings or going to crowded places - including restaurants and bars - while religious facilities were asked to be extra vigilant with quarantine measures.
There were no new delays, however, to the phased re-opening of schools that is currently underway.
"The next two weeks are crucial to prevent the spread of the infection in the metropolitan area," Park said, adding: "We will have to return to social distancing if we fail."
The health minister said the government will be forced to re-impose an all-out social distancing campaign if the country sees more than 50 new cases for at least seven consecutive days.
NEW CASES LINKED TO LOGISTICS FACILITY
At least 82 cases so far this week have been linked to a cluster of infections at a logistics facility operated by Coupang Corp, one of the country's largest online shopping firms, in Bucheon, west of Seoul, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
About 4,100 workers - including 603 delivery people - at the warehouse were believed to have not followed social distancing and protective measures properly, including wearing a mask, KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing.
Coupang, one of group of e-commerce firms whose plants have been scrambling to meet a surge in demand, has said the Bucheon centre went through daily disinfection and all employees wore masks and gloves and had temperatures checked.
The new cases, the third straight day of rising infections, brought the country's total as of midnight on Wednesday to 11,344 with 269 deaths.
South Korea's robust programme of testing earlier this year was credited with helping the number of deaths comparatively low in a global pandemic that has now killed more than 350,000.
The warehouse cluster appears linked to an outbreak that emerged in several Seoul nightclubs and bars in early May, the KCDC said, and comes as the country had sought to ease social distancing rules.
More than 2 million children returned to class on Wednesday, the latest in a phased opening of schools.
Unlike many countries, South Korea didn't impose a strict lockdown to counter the new coronavirus.
Health officials said they would be conducting on-site inspections of logistics centres across the country, to develop better policies for preventing outbreaks at such facilities.
Bucheon city announced it would return to intensive social distancing, which means religious facilities, sport fixtures and other public facilities would be shut down.
Coupang, backed by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank Group, said it closed the Bucheon facility on Monday. It said on Thursday it had also closed a separate facility in Goyang, in the Seoul suburbs, after an employee tested positive there.
"As soon as the employee's diagnosis was confirmed, Coupang sent home and self-quarantined employees who had contact with the employee," the company said in a statement.
The spreading outbreak and warehouse closures come as South Korea's e-commerce firms soak up rocketing orders, as more people opt to shop from home during the coronavirus outbreak, despite the absence of a strict lockdown.
In February, March and April, sales of South Korean online retailers including Coupang jumped 34 per cent, 17 per cent and again 17 per cent respectively from the same months a year ago, according to trade ministry data.
That compared with offline retailers' sales that dropped 7.5 per cent, 18 per cent and 5.5 per cent in the same three months from a year earlier.