Coronavirus curbs could crimp key South Korean holiday despite fewer cases

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea reported its lowest tally of new coronavirus infections in more than three weeks on Monday, but officials are weighing whether to extend social distancing curbs ahead of one of the country’s biggest holidays this month.

Thousands of trainee doctors appeared set to end a two-week protest strike against government healthcare reforms after they agreed to go back to work from Tuesday.

Daily cases have dropped steadily since a late August peak of more than 400. By midnight on Sunday, 119 more cases took the national tally to 21,296, with 336 deaths, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Authorities stopped short of widespread lockdowns in a bid to avert economic damage, but unprecedented measures, such as curbs on coffee shops and eateries, and mandatory masks in public, have been extended in the Seoul area until Sunday.

Slightly looser nationwide curbs run until at least Sept. 20, but officials said they may extend them over the Chuseok holiday, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

Chuseok is one of South Korea’s biggest holidays, but officials urged against traditional visits to meet relatives or gather at family graves.

“We urge you to refrain from visiting hometowns and relatives, if possible, this Chuseok to protect the health of you and your family,” ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.

Measures being considered are bans on gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors, and on audiences at sports games, as well as requests for people to work staggered hours or from home.

A group representing trainee doctors who had held out after a pact with the government last week to end the strike said they would return to work on Tuesday, but warned of further action unless the government offered concessions within two weeks.

The government has agreed to delay until after the coronavirus crisis measures it says would defend against future outbreaks, but which the doctors say would merely swell their numbers in cities without improving rural medical services.

On Monday, the health ministry said it would turn to military doctors to make up for a lack of new interns and residents after some medical students refused to take final licensing exams as part of the protest.

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