(ATTN: UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- Large Liberation Day demonstrations are taking place in Seoul on Saturday despite new COVID-19 cases in the country reaching a five-month high of 166, with authorities reinstating stricter social distancing guidelines as the highly infectious disease is spreading at an alarming rate.
The demonstrations come as a Seoul court mostly upheld local government's injunctions to ban large gatherings in light of public safety concerns and as police have warned they will not permit unlawful protests.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in South Korea reached a five-month high of 166 on Saturday, with rebounds of transmissions in and around the capital city putting pressure on authorities to consider reintroducing stricter social distancing guidelines and other safety measures.
The daily tally marks the second day in a row that infection numbers reached triple digits, with the total caseload in the country hitting 15,039, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Of the new cases, 155 were local transmissions, with churches being cited as outbreak clusters.
Reflecting the rise in numbers, the government raised the three-tier social distancing scheme in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province from Level 1 to Level 2, effective Sunday. The move bans all large-scale indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo warned that health authorities have not been able to track 14 percent of all new cases confirmed to a source and that the country may be close to experiencing another large-scale outbreak.
Sarang Jeil Church, led by conservative pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, and the Freedom Union have gone ahead with a rally to blast the government and the ruling Democratic Party near Gyeongbok Palace.
Health authorities have said that over 130 people who go to the church in Seoul have been confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.
Police said that while organizers initially said some 2,000 will take part in the gathering, a large number of people have actually converged in the central district of the capital city, as the church and the Freedom Union have urged followers on YouTube to join the protest. The church and the group have consistently blasted many of the incumbent administration's policies.
Organizers have asked for permission to hold their demonstration up till 7 p.m., which includes the use of three car lanes in the downtown region so people can carry out a march.
Police said there is the possibility that Jun's followers may even carry out an overnight vigil.
Besides churchgoers, a protest organized by former lawmaker Min Kyung-wook, who leads the April 15 Rigged Election association, is being held near Euljiro 3 Station, and it will be followed by a march toward Gwanghwamun. This group initially reported that 4,000 will take part in the gathering that calls for a thorough probe into "irregularities" surrounding the last general election, which some conservatives claim was rigged.
Other than conservative groups, the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held a separate protest near Anguk Station and Bosingak. The progressive union reported there would be 2,000 people at the rally, stressing that everyone would take extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The union demands a stop to U.S. interference in inter-Korean affairs and closer ties with Pyongyang.
Police said they are taking all appropriate measures to safely control rallies that have not been approved by the court while keeping close tabs on those that have gotten permission.
The April 15 Rigged Election group can lawfully carry out its rally, while the Freedom Union and the umbrella union have not been given permission.
"Strict safety guidelines need to be maintained for authorized gatherings, while more stringent measures can be taken for rallies that have not been approved," a law enforcement official said.
He said if people do not follow orders, they will be disbanded, and those breaking the law will be arrested on site.