SEOUL, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- As the Seoul metropolitan area saw a record number of COVID-19 cases on Friday, acting Mayor Seo Jeong-hyup declared a "desperate crisis" and announced measures that include forcing most businesses to close early each night.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported about 300 cases in the capital city on Friday amid a nationwide outbreak that reached a nine-month high.
Metro Seoul has been under Level 2 physical distancing guidelines, the third-highest level on South Korea's 5-tier system, since Nov. 24. Seo said, however, current measures aren't doing enough to stem the spread.
"The number of confirmed cases is snowballing," the mayor said at an online press briefing. "It is impossible to respond to the crisis with the measures taken so far."
Under the new restrictions, which take effect Saturday and will last for at least two weeks, restaurants, cafes and most stores must suspend operations at 9 p.m. each night. Other businesses, such as movie theaters, beauty salons and study halls, will also have to close at that time. Larger venues like concert halls, museums, libraries and sports facilities will be shuttered around the clock.
Only small markets and convenience stores under 300 square meters in size and restaurants offering takeout and delivery will be allowed to stay open. Public transportation will be reduced by 30% after 9 p.m.
Seo said the city has hoped to minimize the economic impact of quarantine measures, especially for the self-employed and small business owners, but warned that the alarming situation calls for drastic measures.
"For now, protecting the safety and life of citizens is our top priority," he said. "I made a decision [to shut businesses down] before a bigger crisis hits."
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education also announced Friday that middle schools and high schools in the city will conduct all classes online for two weeks starting on Monday.
On Thursday, more than 400,000 high school seniors nationwide took an all-day college entrance exam and many will continue with a second round of tests at various colleges in the coming days and weeks.
Health officials have cautioned that the testing period may help spread the virus and urged people to avoid travel and large gatherings for the upcoming holiday season.
Senior health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said Friday the "current [COVID-19] situation is at a critical juncture" and added that authorities are designating the next few weeks until Jan. 3 a "special prevention period."
"We ask you to cancel any in-person Christmas and New Year's Eve events and religious gatherings during the period and please switch to non-face-to-face means," he said.
Increased distancing levels in South Korea have so far had little impact on slowing the coronavirus spread and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Friday the government is considering further restrictions.
"We will monitor the situation until the weekend and decide whether to take additional quarantine measures," he tweeted.
The more than 600 new cases represent South Korea's third-highest one-day total to date and raised the total caseload to 36,300, according to the KDCA. More than 500 patients have died.