SEOUL, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Private gatherings of five or more people will be banned in the Greater Seoul area starting this week, officials announced Monday, as a COVID-19 outbreak that's spread across South Korea shows no sign of slowing.
The ban, which goes into effect on Tuesday at midnight and lasts until Jan. 3, will apply to all private get-togethers, including holiday parties, meetings of clubs or associations and personal social gatherings, both indoors and outdoors. Exceptions will be made for weddings and funerals, which will be limited to fewer than 50 people.
"The current crisis cannot be overcome without reducing the spread of group infections through private gatherings with family, acquaintances and friends," acting Seoul Mayor Seo Jeong-hyup said at a news conference Monday.
"This is the last chance to curb the spread of COVID-19."
The announcement came as South Korea recorded 24 deaths Monday, its highest daily toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
The country is also facing a shortage of hospital beds for critically ill patients. Two Seoul residents died while waiting to be hospitalized for COVID-19 this month, Seo said.
South Korea has so far avoided the draconian lockdowns seen in several other countries, finding early success controlling the virus through an intensive testing and tracing regimen.
However, the current outbreak, which has seen new cases climb above 1,000 per day several times over the past week, has proven far more challenging to contain as infections are popping up widely over multiple clusters.
The mayor said that if the limit on gatherings doesn't work, Seoul may end up looking like other cities that have taken more extreme shutdown measures.
"The scenes from London or New York, where the streets are empty and the city is closed, can also happen in Seoul," he said. "In order to avoid reaching the stage where the economy and daily life stop, we must do everything we can now."
Neighboring Gyeonggi province and nearby Incheon, South Korea's third-largest city, also announced prohibitions on gatherings of five people or more.
The Seoul metropolitan area is home to around half of South Korea's 51 million residents, and the majority of new cases have been found here.
"The decision was not easy because of the great impact on the lives of the citizens, but it is necessary to take strong measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and break the link of regional infections," Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-Myung said in a statement Monday.
South Korea recorded more than 900 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, raising the total caseload to about 50,600. The new deaths brought the national toll to about 700.