SEOUL, South Korea — Despite early successes last year in controlling the pandemic, South Korea on Friday announced it would raise restrictions in the capital region to the highest level as a fourth wave of infections is gaining speed.
The country recorded 1,316 cases Friday, breaking records for a second straight day. That's not high by international standards, but health authorities say the peak of this fourth wave of infections is likely yet to come, and barring effective countermeasures, could see case numbers nearly double.
Driving the surge are residents of the greater Seoul region, accounting for four-fifths of cases, and people in their 20s and 30s, who made up 43% of confirmed cases on Thursday. Many of them frequent the capital's eateries and night spots, and most are unvaccinated.
But to some extent, the young consumers were just taking their cues from the government's muddled messaging, authorities say.
The government was trying to "strike a balance between recovery of everyday life and prevention of outbreaks," Sohn Young-rae, a spokesperson for the health ministry, told reporters on Wednesday.
In a bid to give the impression of normalcy, authorities planned to relax restrictions this month and encourage people to get vaccinated by allowing inoculated citizens to go mask-free outdoors, even as case numbers remained steady or edged upward.
The government tried to remind citizens to remain vigilant toward the virus, "but faced with the current outbreak," Sohn conceded, "we do have some regrets that these messages should have been delivered more effectively."
The current restrictions send a sterner message.
For the next two weeks in the capital region, gatherings after 6 p.m. of more than two people are banned, as are protests and rallies. Bars and nightclubs are to close. Attendance at weddings and funerals is limited to family members. Even private gatherings are discouraged.
Following instructions from President Moon Jae-in, the government is adding more COVID-19 testing stations and mobilizing soldiers, police and civil servants to help out with contact tracing.
Vaccinations in South Korea still lag behind other developed economies with only about 11% of the population fully vaccinated.