(ATTN: REWRITES headline, lead; UPDATES with more details throughout)
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea said Friday it will retain its current social distancing measures for another three weeks, including the ban on gatherings of five or more people nationwide, amid spiking virus cases.
But as part of measures to curb cluster infections at risk-prone facilities, the operations of bars and nightclubs will be prohibited in the greater Seoul area and the second-largest city of Busan for the next three weeks, according to health authorities.
The country's new distancing rules and antivirus measures will take effect starting Monday.
Currently, the greater Seoul area, including Gyeonggi Province and Incheon; Busan; and the central city of Daejeon are under Level 2 social distancing, the third highest of the five-tier system. The rest of the country is under Level 1.5, a notch lower than the capital area.
The extension came despite growing concerns about another wave of the pandemic as sporadic cluster infections have continued to pop up across the nation.
Instead of raising social distancing guidelines, health authorities decided to close bars, clubs and other entertainment establishments that operate in areas under Level 2 for three weeks.
The move is expected to affect 39,000 establishments, including 15,000 in the greater Seoul area.
Despite the restriction, however, regional governments will have leeway to allow them to operate until 10 p.m under the condition that they thoroughly implement sanitary measures.
The curfew on other businesses, such as cafes, karaoke establishments and gyms, currently at 10 p.m., can be readjusted to 9 p.m. at any time, depending on the infection situation.
Visitors at spas will be also required to wear masks in locker rooms. Department stores and supermarkets will be banned from providing food samples to shoppers and are ordered to close down resting areas, according to health authorities.
"The fourth wave of virus infections, which we tried to avoid so desperately, seems to be coming closer and getting stronger," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a meeting on virus responses.
"The new measures decided today may be a far cry from dashing the force of the fourth wave of infections," he said, adding that the government will announce additional "special antivirus measures" early next week.
The government will also step up its "no tolerance" principle against those who violate virus curbs and make it an obligation for people with infection symptoms to get tested for the virus, the prime minister also added.
People will be required to take COVID-19 tests within 48 hours if doctors or pharmacists advise that they be examined.
South Korea has been grappling with a surge in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases. The country saw 700 new daily cases, the highest in three months, on Thursday and 671 on Friday.