SEOUL, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- South Korea will strengthen physical distancing guidelines in the greater Seoul area this week amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, health officials said Tuesday.
Authorities will raise distancing mandates one notch on the government's five-tier system, from Level 1 to Level 1.5 starting at midnight Thursday. The change will last for at least two weeks.
"[W]e are facing a crisis where we are standing on the verge of a widespread outbreak," health minister Park Neung-hoo said at a press briefing. "If we cannot contain the virus, it will put the health and safety of many people at risk."
South Korea reported 230 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, marking the 10th day in a row the country has seen triple-digit infections and the fourth day the total has surpassed 200. Roughly half of the new cases are concentrated in the densely populated Seoul area.
The new cases are the most South Korea has seen in more than two months and concern health officials because they're springing up from various small clusters, from workplaces to cafes to social gatherings, making them more difficult to trace.
Under the heightened guidelines, facilities such as restaurants, bars and concert halls won't be closed but they must maintain increased spacing and follow safety measures like keeping partitions between tables.
Rallies, concerts and festivals cannot have more than 100 attendees and sporting events and churches are only allowed to operate at 30% capacity.
The enhanced restrictions come just as the Korean Baseball Organization begins its seven-game championship round on Tuesday night between the NC Dinos and Doosan Bears. Fans were allowed to attend games in limited capacity in August and attendance levels reached 50% before the tightened measures.
Schools will also revert to two-thirds capacity. Some 480,000 high school seniors are preparing to take their once-a-year College Scholastic Aptitude Test on Dec. 3, an all-day affair that's considered vital to future success.
The enhanced measures are partly intended to "create a safe environment for our students," Park said. He added that South Korea is trying to avoid going to a higher level on the social distancing scale to keep economic impact to a minimum.
"We would like to contain the virus here at Level 1.5 and hope that in two weeks it will be under control," he said. "If the virus is not contained, it will have an impact on [the CSAT] and will harm many students. It will also incur greater economic difficulties for our citizens as well."
The heightened regulations will initially go into effect in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, the third-largest city in South Korea, will adopt the new measures on Monday and Gangwon Province, east of Seoul, must decide whether to raise its level.
South Korea was the first country after China to see widespread local transmission of the coronavirus in February, when an outbreak centered around the southeastern city of Daegu. Officials were able to contain the initial wave through an aggressive and vigorous system of testing and tracing.
However, there have been sporadic new outbreaks, including a cluster tied to a nightclub in May and another around a church and an anti-government rally in Seoul in August.
Park said South Korea's experience in dealing with the repeated outbreaks will help to contain the new spread.
"South Korea is once again standing at a very critical point," he said. "However, we have faced repeated challenges and crises, and we now have great know-how and experience, as well as a sense of solidarity and cooperation among the people."
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 29,000 COVID-19 cases and about 500 deaths in South Korea, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.