South Korea Tightens COVID Restrictions, Unvaccinated Told to Eat Alone at Restaurants

South Korea announced its toughest COVID-19 restrictions yet as the country struggles with a surge in cases and deaths from the Delta variant. The restrictions limit social gatherings for fully vaccinated adults and place new limitations in restaurants for adults who are not fully vaccinated.

Under the new restrictions, social gatherings for vaccinated adults are limited to four people. Individuals who are not fully vaccinated are required to eat alone in restaurants. However, the rules do not apply to people younger than 18 years old, said Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol.

Officials decided to announce stricter measures as hospitals and COVID-19 intensive care units are nearing capacity and health care workers are exhausted.

The country reported 7,622 new cases on Thursday. A total of 97,000 cases have been reported so far in December, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

In the capital region, intensive care units designated for COVID-19 are already at 86 percent capacity, and as of Thursday morning, 989 patients were in serious or critical condition. More than 890 people have died from COVID-19 in December, making the total death toll 4,518.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Thursday the new restrictions will start Saturday and last for at least 16 days, saying there's a crucial need to bring the country to a "standstill."

South Korea Restaurant COVID-19
South Korean restrictions aiming to reduce a recent surge in COVID cases limit social gatherings for fully vaccinated adults and place new limitations in restaurants for adults who are not fully vaccinated. Above, a health official wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant on the street near the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul on August 18, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP/Getty Images

Under the new restrictions, restaurants, coffee shops, gyms and karaoke venues will close at 9 p.m. Movie theaters, concert halls and private cram schools will close at 10 p.m.

"During this period of standstill, the government will reinforce the stability of our medical response capabilities," said Kim, Seoul's No. 2 behind President Moon Jae-in, during a meeting to discuss the virus. "We ask our people to respond to these efforts by actively getting vaccinated."

The latest viral surge has been a setback for the country's government, which eased social distancing rules in November while signaling a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

Officials focusing on improving the economy had predicted that the country's rising vaccination rates would help lower the number of hospitalizations and fatalities. But there has been a surge in serious cases among seniors, including those whose immunities have waned since getting inoculated toward the beginning of the vaccine rollout in February.

More than 81% of the population of over 51 million has been fully vaccinated, but only 17% of people have received booster shots

Most of the transmissions were in the capital region around Seoul, officials added.

After weeks of hesitating, officials moderately tightened social distancing rules last week by banning gatherings of seven or more people in the Seoul area and requiring adults to verify their vaccination status at restaurants and other businesses, but those measures have not seemed to meaningfully slow the spread of the virus.

KDCA Commissioner Jung Eun-kyeong said the country could see daily infections exceed 10,000 or 20,000 in coming weeks if it fails to slow transmissions now. She said that would push the total number of serious cases as high as 1,900 and possibly beyond what hospitals can handle without sacrificing non-COVID-19 care.

"We are seeing an average of 4,700 new cases in the Seoul metropolitan area, which is significantly higher than the maximum 3,600 level the hospital system could manage," Jung said during a briefing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.