SEOUL, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- A stricter level of physical distancing restrictions went into effect in the greater Seoul area on Tuesday as health officials scrambled to contain what they have described as a third wave of COVID-19.
The government raised its distancing level on its five-tier scale, from Level 1.5 to Level 2, as new cases continue to linger at the highest levels since August.
South Korea saw more than 300 cases on Tuesday, most in the Seoul metropolitan region, where roughly half of the country's 52 million people live.
Under the stricter guidelines, which will remain in place for two weeks, gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited. High-risk venues such as bars and nightclubs must suspend operations, cafes can only offer takeout and delivery and restaurants have to stop serving food indoors at 9:00 p.m.
Primary and middle school attendance is limited to one-third capacity and high school classes two-thirds capacity.
Almost half a million South Korean high school seniors are preparing to take the annual College Scholastic Aptitude Test on Dec. 3, and health officials are trying to contain the outbreak to allow the exam to run smoothly.
In a post Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in wrote that it's "the responsibility of our society as a whole" to ensure the that the test is held safely.
Moon wrote that "another difficult war is being fought" against COVID-19 and expressed regret for the impact of the heightened restrictions on daily life and the economy. However, he said, it's imperative to slow the spread before it gets worse.
"If you can't break the chain of infection right now, the damage will be even greater," he wrote. "The best way is to get rid of the coronavirus spread in the shortest possible time is to quickly apply distancing and quarantine measures."
Health officials have cautioned that more than half of new cases stem from small clusters, such as gatherings of friends and family, which makes them harder to trace.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Tuesday called on public officials to refrain from face-to-face meetings, business trips, social gatherings and holiday parties. He warned of "strict disciplinary measures" if officials contract COVID-19 by not complying.
Chung said Monday that the South Korean government is in the "final stages" of negotiations to secure COVID-19 vaccines from developers.
Tuesday's cases brought South Korea's total case number to about 31,400, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. More than 500 have died.