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COVID-19: South Korea limits private gatherings nationwide

A health worker tests a patient for COVID-19 at a new temporary walk-in site in Seoul, South Korea. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
A health worker tests a patient for COVID-19 at a new temporary walk-in site in Seoul, South Korea. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 2 (UPI) -- South Korea expanded a limit on private gatherings in the greater Seoul area to the rest of the country Saturday to curb COVID-19 spread amid a recent surge.

The country's health ministry reported 824 new COVID-19 cases as of midnight Friday, including 788 local infections, and 25 new deaths, raising the total number of cases to 62,593 and total deaths to 942.

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South Korea has recently seen its highest daily numbers of COVID-19 cases amid a surge last month that brought daily numbers above a previous record of 909 daily cases on Feb. 29.

The country reported 1,029 new cases for Thursday and has hovered around 1,000 daily cases for the past seven days. Saturday's drop appeared to be due to a reduction in testing over the New Year's holiday. Testing decreased from 101,176 people Thursday to 53,540 Friday.

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The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters decided to expand current social distancing measures for the greater Seoul area to the rest of the country until Jan. 17, but decided not to raise social distancing measures from Level 2.5 to Level 3 amid concern about economic impact.

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"In consideration of the fact that we have maintained our quarantine and medical response capabilities as of yet, and in consideration of the potential shock to the economy, we will not raise the scheme to Level 3, which includes a ban on the operation of facilities used by many people," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said in a press briefing.

The Level 3 restrictions, the highest level, would place more serious restrictions on businesses. Under the current Level 2.5, restaurants and shops can operate normally until 9 p.m., but can only be open for takeout or delivery services later at night.

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The country is at a "very crucial turning point," Kwon said. "The two weeks ahead will be a period during which we can solidify our antivirus campaign and reduce the number of patients."

In Japan, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the country's coronavirus response, said Saturday the government was weighing whether or not to declare another state of emergency.

Governors of Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures requested the the emergency declaration amid a surge of infections.

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"We agreed that we are in a severe situation that warrants us considering the declaration of a state of emergency," Nishimura told reporters after meeting with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and leaders of the Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures.

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"We will hear the opinions of experts," before a decision is made, he added.

Nishimura asked the four governors during the meeting to urge restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol at 7 p.m. and close at 8 p.m., adding that the central government would expand compensation for restaurants that cooperate, and call on residents to refrain from nonessential outings after 8 p.m.

The governors agreed to do both.

"We will take as many measures as possible to curb the current spread of infections," Koike said.

Tokyo on Saturday reported 814 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of cases to 61,774, according to the metropolitan government. Local authorities across Japan reported 3,000 new cases, bringing total cases in the country to 242,093 with 3,369 deaths since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University's global tracker of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In Australia, New South Wales Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian announced Saturday a new mask mandate for indoor venues in Greater Sydney to go into effect at midnight. Failure to comply with the new mask mandate can result in a $200 fine, but a grace period will be in effect until Monday.

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"We have been talking about it for months and months; the reason it is happening now is to make sure we give confidence to businesses and people holding down jobs," she said.

Children under age 12 are exempt from the mandate, but are "encouraged to wear masks where practicable," NSW Health said.

The premier also announced other new restrictions including banning night clubs, and limiting gym classes to 30 people, gatherings at places of worship to 100 people, weddings and funerals to 100 people, and outdoor performance and protests to 500 people.

Australia has reported 28,469 cases of COVID-19 and 909 deaths, according to the global tracker.

In France, police shut down an illegal rave Saturday morning that had begun on New Year's Eve.

More than 2,500 people attended the event, including people from France, Britain, Spain and other countries, authorities said.

COVID-19 restrictions in the country imposing a nationwide curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. had made the event at Lieuron near Rennes in Brittany illegal.

Police said that they had attempted to prevent the event from happening altogether, "but faced fierce hostility from party-goers," including those who set a police car on fire and hurled bottles and stones.

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France has over 2.6 million cases and 64,892 deaths, according to the global tracker.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has infected over 84 million people and killed over 1.8 million.

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