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South Korea eases social distancing curbs amid COVID-19 downtrend

People wearing masks walk at Myeongdong shopping district, as social distancing measures were introduced to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seoul.   © Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) -- South Korea will relax some rules on social distancing from Monday, allowing nightspots to reopen and spectators to attend sports events, after new coronavirus cases edged lower in recent weeks, authorities said.

Daily infections have fallen largely into the double-digit range in the past two weeks, down from 440 during outbreaks at a church and a political rally in August that prompted clampdowns on gatherings and some businesses.

"We will lower the level of social distancing nationwide but maintain controls on risk factors such as the door-to-door sales industry," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting on Sunday.

"Many citizens are feeling fatigue over prolonged distancing, and we also took its negative impact on the economy into consideration."

The relaxation means places of entertainment, such as nightclubs, karaoke bars and buffets can re-open, and audiences of up to 30% of stadium capacity will be allowed at sports matches such as the popular Korea Baseball Organization League, as long as they comply with antivirus guidelines.

But high-risk activities such as door-to-door sales businesses and small religious gatherings remain banned, with new limits on guests and spacing at nightspots and indoor sport venues in the heavily populated Seoul area, the government said.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo warned against complacency, saying the country still faced the dangers of what he called a "twindemic" of the virus and a winter seasonal flu.

"We all know from past experiences that any slight carelessness could lead to another large-scale spread of the virus," he told a separate briefing.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 58 cases by midnight on Saturday, taking total infections to 24,606, with 432 deaths.

Of the new cases, 46 were domestically transmitted, most of them in the greater Seoul region, where small clusters continue to emerge from churches, door-to-door sales firms and medical institutions.

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