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SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Saturday placed stricter social distancing guidelines on the greater Seoul area after daily new COVID-19 cases in the country reached a five-month high of 166, as transmissions in and around the capital continue to spread at an alarming rate.
The decision to raise the social distancing plan in Seoul and the Gyeonggi region up one notch to "level 2" was reached at a pan-governmental COVID-19 meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.
The move comes as the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported that new daily coronavirus cases reached 166 as of midnight Friday, raising the total caseload to 15,039.
The number of new cases was the most since March 11, when the country reported 242 new daily infections during the height of a mass outbreak in Daegu and a cluster originating from a call center building in Seoul.
Of the new cases, 155 were local transmissions. The number of daily infections reached triple digits for the second straight day.
In June, the country adopted a three-tier social distancing scheme that adjusts the intensity of virus prevention guidelines depending on the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The country as a whole has been on "Level 1" social distancing since May 6, which allows citizens to carry out their economic and social activities under quarantine rules.
However, due to a resurgence of virus cases in recent days, there have been growing calls that the country should raise its social distancing level.
The number of new cases has shown a dramatic increase during the week, with new daily confirmed cases nearly doubling from 28 on Monday to 54 reported on Wednesday, with people testing positive for the virus reaching triple digits Friday.
The KCDC has warned that the greater Seoul area is teetering on the brink of another spike in virus cases and that the easing of social distancing guidance may be rolled back if the upward trend continues.
Of the new locally transmitted cases, 72 were reported in Seoul and 67 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province.
Sporadic cluster infections have shown no signs of a let-up, with most cases traced to churches in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.
Infections tied to the Woori Jeil Church in Yongin, south of Seoul, has reached 105, while cases linked to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul have amounted to 59. Local authorities have ordered the churches' congregations to receive COVID-19 tests.
It was also reported that 31 residents in a small town in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province, were also infected with COVID-19 after attending a gathering among townspeople.
The local governments have been on high alert, placing restrictions on gatherings and activities at religious facilities to contain the further spread of the virus.
The newly announced Level 2 social distancing guidelines for Seoul and the Gyeonggi region will take effect at midnight and continue for two weeks.
Under stricter guidelines, all public facilities, including welfare centers, libraries, galleries and museums, are to be closed, while indoor meetings and outdoor meetings of more than 50 and 100 people, respectively, are banned.
Schools are required to teach students using both remote learning and in-person classes with sporting events to revert back to crowdless matches.
High-risk commercial facilities, such as bars, karaoke businesses, indoor gyms, concert halls, logistics centers, "hagwons," or cram schools, with more than 300 people and buffet restaurants are also subject to closures. The government also added PC cafes into the high-risk commercial group effective Wednesday.
Regular cafes and restaurants will be allowed to open, but customers will have to put their masks on when not eating and business owners will be required to digitally record the identities of visitors by using QR codes.
Companies, both public and private, must also allow flexible working options, such as remote working, to reduce the density of people at workplaces.