SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea’s capital banned large protests and prohibited gatherings of a religious group that has been a hotbed for coronavirus infections, as the outbreak continued to spread across the country.
One hundred people tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of South Korean infections to 204 as of late Friday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though South Korean officials insist the outbreak is still “manageable,” the number of virus cases here has now doubled for three consecutive days.
Most of the new South Korean infections were linked to a fringe Christian group in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. The mayor of Daegu has warned residents to stay indoors. Many businesses have closed and schools have postponed classes.
In Seoul, which also saw a surge of new infections, virtually all commuters on public buses and trains wore masks and exchanged nervous glances if someone sneezed or coughed.
“It looks like a scene from a disaster movie,” said Choi In-woo, a 20-year-old freshman university student in the Gwanghwamun neighborhood of the Jongno district, which reported the most new cases in the capital this week.
“I’m really scared if it lasts longer,” said Choi, whose university has canceled orientation for the spring semester.
The highly contagious virus, which causes a pneumonialike respiratory illness known as COVID-19, has killed 2,200 people and infected more than 75,000 worldwide.
Nearly all of the coronavirus cases have been in China, where the virus originated. But South Korea now has the third most cases globally. So far, only one South Korean has died.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced Friday it has banned gatherings of the religious group from where most of the new infections have emerged. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who is revered by his followers as a messiah.
Officials say a 61-year-old woman, who tested positive for the virus this week, had attended the group’s worship services in Daegu. The Yonhap news agency reported that the virus may have spread more easily at the religious gatherings, since its adherents sit close together on the floor and often place their hands on one another.
Seoul officials have also banned large urban rallies — an extraordinary step given that protests are held virtually every weekend in the South Korean capital. A Seoul city official Friday defended the decision, saying it does not amount to a total ban on protests.
“Freedom of assembly and demonstration is a special right guaranteed in the Constitution ... (but) recent rallies in Gwanghwamun show a high participation of the elderly,” he said. “That’s why this special ban is in place for the public health and citizens’ safety.”
Global health officials have warned that the sick and elderly are most at risk.
According to a report this week by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall coronavirus fatality rate is 2.3 percent. But that figure spiked to almost 15 percent in infections of people older than 80.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.