Spike in South Korea coronavirus cases prompts alarm and a new crackdown

By Linda Givetash and Stella Kim of NBC News and Reuters

After being lauded for its success in containing the coronavirus, a spike in cases in Seoul has prompted South Korean officials to tighten social distancing measures so as to curb a second wave of the pandemic.

The 79 new cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday was the highest number seen in nearly eight weeks. It comes just weeks after the country eased stringent social distancing policies, which coupled with extensive tracking and tracing, has kept the total number of infections to 11,344 in the country of 51 million.

“If we fail to eradicate the spread of the virus in the metropolitan area at an early stage, it will lead to more community infections, eventually undermining school reopenings,” Park Neung Hoo, minister for health and welfare, said in a news briefing.

On Wednesday, the latest move in a phased reopening of the country allowed more than 2 million children to return to class.

Image: People suspected of being infected with the new coronavirus wait to receive tests at a coronavirus screening station in Bucheon, South Korea
South Korean’s suspected of being infected with the coronavirus wait to receive tests at a screening station in Bucheon.Yun Hyun-tae / AP

The “strengthened” measures now being enforced in major metropolitan areas for the next two weeks will see tougher quarantining policies, a plea to businesses to enforce staggered working hours and the shutting of public facilities like museums. Businesses such as bars, clubs and sporting venues are being advised to close.

Religious establishments are being urged to maintain strict distancing measures and even close in some areas, while the public generally is being asked to remain vigilant about personal hygiene and avoiding large gatherings.

“But basically, I don’t expect huge changes made to the infection prevention policy direction,” Park said.

While measures are being tightened in cities, Park said they would continue to be eased for the rest of the country.

But he warned that officials would be forced to return to an “intense social distancing scheme” if the virus spread was not brought under control by June 14.

The at least 82 new cases this week have been linked to a cluster of infections at a logistics facility operated by Coupang Corp., one of the country’s largest online shopping companies, in Bucheon, west of Seoul, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some 4,100 workers, including 603 delivery people, at the warehouse were believed to have not followed social distancing and protective measures properly, including wearing masks, KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing.

Coupang said the Bucheon center went through daily disinfection and all employees wore masks and gloves and had temperatures checked.

The latest wave appears linked to an outbreak that emerged in several Seoul nightclubs and bars in early May, the KCDC said.

Health officials said they would be conducting on-site inspections of logistics centers across the country, to develop better policies for preventing outbreaks at such facilities.

Coupang, backed by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank Group, said it closed the Bucheon facility on Monday.

Linda Givetash is a London-based producer for NBC News. 

Stella Kim is an NBC News freelance producer based in Seoul.