Asia Today: S. Korea starts fining people not wearing masks

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea has reported its biggest daily jump in COVID-19 cases in 70 days as the government began fining people who fail to wear masks in public.

The 191 cases added to the country’s caseload Friday represented the sixth consecutive day of over 100 and the highest daily increase since Sept. 4 when authorities reported 198 new infections.

More than 120 of the cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, where the coronavirus has spread in a variety of places, including hospitals, nursing homes, churches, schools, restaurants and offices.

The steady spread of the virus has alarmed government officials, who eased social distancing measures to the lowest level since October to soften the pandemic’s shock on the economy.

While this has allowed high-risk venues like nightclubs and karaoke bears to reopen, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun during a virus meeting Friday said the viral spread could force the government to “seriously consider” tightening social distancing again.

“We are at a precarious situation,” he said, pleading for citizen vigilance and for labor unionists and civic groups to cancel planned rallies.

South Korea has so far weathered its outbreak without major lockdowns, relying on an aggressive test-and-quarantine program and relatively widespread use of masks among the public.

From Friday, officials started to impose fines of up to 100,000 won ($90) for people who fail to properly wear masks in public transport and a wide range of venues, including hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies, nightclubs, karaoke bars, religious and sports facilities and at gatherings of more than 500 people.

People will also be required to wear masks at restaurants and cafes when they are not eating or drinking.

In the capital Seoul, city employees were deployed at subway stations and bus stops to monitor commuters. There were no immediate reports of major disruption.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— New Zealand’s government could soon make wearing masks mandatory on public transit in Auckland and on planes nationwide as it continues to investigate a new community case of the coronavirus. Virus Response Minister Chris Hipkins says there are no plans to raise the nation’s alert level after genome testing linked the latest case with a military worker who caught the virus at a hotel used as a quarantine site. Hipkins says he will recommend the mask mandate to the Cabinet on Monday for its approval. New Zealand has been largely successful in its efforts to stamp out community spread of the virus.

— China’s government says it has helped more than 70,000 Chinese to return home from 92 foreign countries between the start of the coronavirus pandemic and Nov. 10. Most of the country's cases reported in recent months were imported, and Deputy Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui said infections detected at ports of entry had risen about 45% since September. Most recently, China suspended five inbound international flights after significant numbers of COVID-19 sufferers were reported among the passengers. About 3,600 total imported cases have been recorded among China’s total of 86,307 cases reported since the coronavirus was first detected late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Just eight new cases were reported by the National Health Commission on Friday, all of them imported. China has reported a total of 4,634 deaths from COVID-19, a sum that's been largely steady for months.

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