(4th LD) S. Korea's virus cases hit all-time high despite tougher distancing rules | Yonhap News ...

SEOUL, Dec. 25 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases hit a new record high on Friday, despite the most stringent social distancing rules to contain the winter wave of the virus.

South Korea reported 1,241 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,216 local infections, raising the total caseload to 54,770, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

The tally marked a hike from 985 on Thursday, according the public health agency.

The hike is mainly blamed on 288 new cases at a detention center in eastern Seoul in one of the largest cluster infections in South Korea.

South Korea has banned gatherings of five or more people across the country in the most stringent social distancing rules meant to contain the spread of the virus.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, asked people to cancel gatherings and stay at home, saying tougher social distancing rules and antivirus measures could reduce the number of infections in the new year.

The government warned that violators of the social distancing rules will face a fine of up to 3 million won (US$2,700).

The government also shut down ski resorts and popular venues for watching the sunrise on New Year’s Day to slow the spread of the virus during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season.

On Friday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called on health authorities and local governments to respond “strictly” to violations of social distancing rules, noting some restaurants and bars entertained guests after 9 p.m. after locking their doors and switching off signs.

“The vast majority of the nation is faithfully adhering to the government’s antivirus measures despite the inconvenience and pain they entail, but if a few cheat for their own gains, it is difficult to expect results from participating in the antivirus measures,” Chung said during a government COVID-19 pandemic response meeting.

South Korea has been applying Level 2.5 social distancing rules, the second highest of the five-tier system, in the greater Seoul area, home to half of its 51.6 million population, and Level 2 rules in the rest of the country.

Health authorities have said they are aiming to contain the current wave of the pandemic without raising virus curbs to Level 3 on concerns over the impact on the economy.

The authorities plan to decide Sunday on whether to raise the country’s social distancing guidelines to the highest Level 3, Yoon said.

Of the newly identified local infections, 550 cases were reported in Seoul and 257 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 55 more cases.

Other municipalities reported new infections, with South Chungcheong Province adding 79 cases and North Gyeongsang Province reporting 67 new cases.