|Citizens wait in line for coronavirus testting at a temporary testing site in front of Seoul Station, Wednesday. Yonhap|
By Lee Hyo-jin
Restaurants, cafes, karaoke rooms and other entertainment facilities in Seoul and its surrounding area will be allowed to operate until midnight starting from July, extended by two hours from the current 10 p.m. closing time, if the number of daily COVID-19 cases remains at the current level, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Restrictions on operating hours of other facilities such as gyms will also be lifted. The current gathering ban on five or more people may also be eased, allowing private gatherings of up to eight people.
The eased regulations are included in the revised version of the social distancing scheme, which the health ministry plans to announce as early as next week, and will be put into effect starting in July.
Although the ministry has not yet provided additional information on the new scheme, according to a draft version released earlier in March, the current five-tier social distancing scheme will be simplified to four levels.
The ministry noted that the new scheme has been devised based on personal autonomy and responsibility rather than unilaterally imposed bans, and it will be adopted next month as the country's vaccination program is gathering pace.
A total of 10.56 million people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday, accounting for 20.6 percent of the country's population of 52 million, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). At this rate, health authorities expect that 14 million people will receive their first dose by the end of June.
Meanwhile, the government has decided to extend the current social distancing level for another three weeks until July 4, starting from Monday, amid sporadic infections across the country.
Currently, Seoul and the metropolitan area as well as Daegu and Jeju are at Level 2, according to the current social distancing guidelines, while other regions are at Level 1.5. Private gatherings of five or more people are banned.
However, the health authorities have partially eased restrictions on operating hours for outdoor sports stadiums and concert halls considering the beginning of the summer vacation season.
In regions that are at social distancing Level 2, stadiums can operate at up to 30 percent of spectator capacity, while stadiums in regions at Level 1.5 can accommodate up to 50 percent capacity. Concert halls will be able to accommodate up to 4,000 people.
Spectators and visitors must adhere strictly to antivirus rules such as wearing face masks and refraining from leaving their seats. Cheering will also be banned, as well as food and drink at the venues.
According to the KDCA, the country reported 556 new infections for Thursday, including 541 local transmissions, bringing the total caseload to 146,859.