South Korean officials announced an easing of social distancing restrictions even as the country saw its deadliest day of the pandemic on Friday, reflecting reduced political capacity to deal with a fast-developing omicron arising in the face of a growing economic toll and a presidential election next week.
Jeon Hae-cheol, minister of the interior and safety, said the curfew at restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other indoor businesses will be extended by an hour from 10 pm to 11 pm starting Saturday. He cited people’s fatigue and frustration with extended restrictions and the damage to livelihoods.
Officials did maintain a six-person limit on private social gatherings, acknowledging “uncertainties” posed by an accelerating omicron spread that has put the country on the verge of a hospital surge.
Jeon’s announcement from a government meeting discussing the national COVID-19 response came shortly before the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 186 deaths in the latest 24 hours, shattering the previous one-day record of 128 set a day earlier.
The 266,853 coronavirus infections diagnosed in the latest 24 hours was also a single-day record and represented a 60-fold increase from the daily levels in mid-January, when omicron emerged as the dominant strain. The cumulative national caseload is around 3.96 million after adding more than 3.11 million in February alone.
Omicron seems less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the delta variant that hit the country hard in December and January, but hospitalizations have been creeping up amid the greater scale of outbreak. The strain on the hospital system is likely to worsen in the coming weeks, considering the time lags between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
While nearly 800 virus patients were in serious or critical conditions, Deputy Health Minister Lee Ki-il said the country wasn’t in immediate danger of running out of hospital beds, with nearly half of the 2,700 intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment still available.
Lee acknowledged that health experts advising the government had opposed the easing of virus restrictions, but insisted that the move was inevitable considering the shock on service sector businesses. He didn’t give a specific answer when asked whether the government was softening its pandemic response ahead of the presidential election Wednesday.
“The decision on social distancing measures was made in consideration of both the epidemiological situation and livelihoods,” Lee said during a briefing. “I want to stress that the decision was made after real, careful deliberation.”
The move to extend indoor dining hours came after officials removed another key preventive measure last week that had required adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests to enter potentially crowded spaces like restaurants, coffee shops, and gyms.
The omicron surge has forced the country to reshape its pandemic response in a way that effectively tolerates the virus’ spread among the broader population while concentrating medical resources to protect priority groups. But there’s growing concern over the bend-but-not-break approach as the country continues to report some of the world’s highest daily infection numbers.
More than 925,000 virus patients with mild or moderate symptoms have been asked to isolate at home to save hospital space. The country has also reshaped its testing policy around rapid antigen test kits, despite concerns about their accuracy and propensity for false-negative results, to save laboratory tests mostly for priority groups.