Social distancing update (2.19-3.13): private gathering up to 6 people, business hours until 10 p.m.
Due to the spread of Omicron, the number of confirmed cases has doubled every week from the 3rd week of January, exceeding 100,000 on February 18.

Omicron has more than twice as transmissible compared to Delta, but the severity and fatality rate is less than one-third. Also, with the third-dose vaccination rate for the elderly, the transition of the pandemic response system centered on the high-risk group, and the active rollout of the oral antivirals,

With the continued efforts to secure more beds and the decrease in critically ill patients, the healthcare resource capacity remains at a stable level. It is possible to reliably respond to about 1,500 to 2,000 critically ill patients, and possibly more if the hospital beds are operated more efficiently.

There are 2,651 intensive care beds, and 29.4% of them are in use. The utilization rates of semi-critical patient beds and infectious disease hospitals were 51.2% and 43.5%, respectively.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to predict the peak of the epidemic and uncertain how much the number of confirmed cases will increase. If there is an excessive increase in the epidemic, it may cause a setback in the maintenance of the healthcare system or essential social functions.

Most other countries have strengthened social distancing at the beginning of the wave, but some countries are beginning to ease restrictions after passing the local peak. Whether the peak has passed is an important factor for consideration.

On the other hand, the economic difficulties of the self-employed and small business owners are increasing due to the high level of social distancing restrictions that has continued for 9 weeks.

With the recent reorganization of the pandemic response system to focus on minimizing serious illness and death of high-risk populations, questions about the effectiveness and consistency of social distancing measures are being raised.

On the other hand, temporary easing of distancing rules may lead to a serious emergency such as the collapse of the health systems and decrease in essential social functions.

While the Omicron variant is less likely to cause serious illness or fatality, it is highly transmissible, and relaxing of distancing measures may lead to a large-scale epidemic of confirmed cases in a short period of time and overload the health system.

It is also necessary to consider the capacity of local governments, public health centers, and front-line healthcare workers. Currently, local governments and public health centers are putting all their efforts into making the changes to the system in the early stages of the system transition. If the number of confirmed cases increases on a large scale before the reorganized system is sufficiently stabilized, a smooth on-site response may not be carried out and public chaos may be prolonged.

The government held various discussions and collected opinions on the measures to adjust the distancing measures through the New Normal Recovery Support Committee, related ministries, and meetings of 17 cities and provinces. Various opinions were presented at the New Normal Recovery Support Committee, including those on easing or maintaining of current distancing measures.

Health experts were of the opinion that distancing measures should be maintained or only minimal adjustments should be made until the peak of the epidemic is identified.

Members of the Economic and Welfare Subcommittee and small business owners were in favor of easing the distance measures. The opinion was that there was no reason to maintain the distancing anymore as the severity was low and the medical capacity was stable. In particular, there was a strong opinion that the time limit or private gathering restrictions should be abolished altogether.

Various opinions were presented from local governments, such as to wait until after the reorganized system is stabilized, and for a slight easing in consideration of the difficulties of small business owners..
In consideration of the various opinions and circumstances, the conclusion was reached that a more conservative response was necessary until the Omicron epidemic passed the peak and turned into a downward trend. The decision was made to maintain the current framework of social distancing.

However, in consideration of the economic difficulties, a slight adjustment will be made to extend the business hours limit from 9 pm to 10 pm.

Adjustment of the distancing measures and COVID health pass is to be carefully considered after the peak of the epidemic has passed, with evaluation of the overall situation. Easing of social distancing measures are to be implemented in phases If the epidemic transitions to a declining trend after passing the peak, and when severe cases and health system capacity remain stable. Adjustments should be made in stages at intervals of 2-3 weeks, but reinforced measures may be implemented even during the adjustment period if there is a risk of a crisis such as a collapse of the medical system. Conversely, if it passes the peak and turns into a downward trend even on the way, easing of measures may be considered after evaluation.

Based on these basic directions, this social distancing will be adjusted as follows.

The measure is implemented for 3 weeks, from February 19 (Sat) to March 13 (Sun), as the Omicron peak is predicted from the end of February to the beginning of March, and it is necessary to secure a sufficient observation period for the next adjustment.

The operating hours of group 1 (entertainment facilities, etc.) and group 2 facilities (restaurants, cafes, singing practice areas, bathhouses, indoor sports facilities) will be relaxed from 21:00 to 22:00. However, for group 3 and other groups, the 22:00 limit is maintained as before.

As before, private gatherings are possible for up to 6 people, and non-vaccinated (excluding those with COVID health pass exemptions) individuals can dine in at restaurants and cafes alone. Existing exceptions such as for families living together and caregiving (children, elderly, disabled, etc.) are maintained.

Other measures such as for events, assemblies, and religious facilities are maintained as before.

Meanwhile, it was decided to adjust the operation of the entry lists according to the reorganized pandemic response system.

Various types of entry lists (such as QR code entry, safe calls, handwritten lists, etc.) at publicly used facilities have been used for the purpose of collecting information for contact tracing and checking COVID health pass. The following adjustment reflects the changes in epidemiological investigation methods such as self-reported investigations.
The entry list mandate (QR, safe call, handwritten list) at public facilities for the purpose of collecting information for contact tracing will be temporarily suspended. The operation may resume flexibly in accordance with changes in public health conditions such as the appearance of new variant of concern and epidemic patterns in the future.

However, in the case of COVID pass facilities, the QR service may continue to be provided for the convenience of checking vaccination status.

COVID passes can be checked via electronic certificates (COOV app or QR code), paper certificates, and vaccination stickers, or negative PCR test results.

.Application of COVID health pass for teenagers is moved from March 1 to April 1. This is because, following the decision to suspend the execution of the COVID pass for youth in Seoul (Jan. 14) and Gyeonggi (February 17), if implemented according to the original schedule (implemented on March 1), imbalance between regions and confusion on site may occur. It was hoped that a judgment on the appeal of the suspension of execution would be issued before the implementation of the system, but this measure is in consideration the unavoidable adjustment of the enforcement time due to the litigation schedule.

Due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, the importance of practicing preventive measures in daily life is increasing more than ever.

Accordingly, the government urged thorough observance of basic hygiene precautions such as maintaining a 1m distance between people, wearing a mask (especially, KF94 recommended for unvaccinated and elderly people), and periodic ventilation and disinfection, as well as public health rules for public facilities.

For more information: http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en