By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea unveiled on Monday a three-phase strategy to get back to normal from the coronavirus with all limits on gatherings and distancing gone by February, after it achieved a goal of vaccinating 70% of its people on the weekend.
The scheme begins next Monday and is due to run until Feb. 20, by when all distancing curbs will be scrapped except for mask-wearing mandates, a government health panel said.
South Korea has been largely successful in managing the pandemic without the lockdowns and death rates seen in many other parts of the world, largely through intensive testing, tracing, distancing and masks.
In the first phase of the plan, all operating-hour curbs on restaurants, cafes and other businesses will be dropped, though nightclubs will still have to close by midnight.
Visitors to high-risk venues, such as indoor gyms, saunas and karaoke bars will have to be fully vaccinated, while private gatherings in the capital, Seoul, and surrounding areas can include up to 10 people regardless of vaccination status.
Currently, gatherings of up to eight people are allowed if a group includes four fully vaccinated people.
Authorities will focus on weekly hospitalisation and mortality rates rather than on daily new COVID-19 cases and people with only mild symptoms will be allowed to treat themselves at home.
South Korea's latest wave of infections has brought far fewer serious infections than earlier outbreaks, with many older and more vulnerable people now vaccinated.
It reported 1,190 new cases for Sunday. Hospitals are treating about 322 critical cases.
South Korea was one of the first countries to record novel coronavirus cases after it emerged in China in late 2019. It has since had 353,089 infections, with 2,773 deaths.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Robert Birsel)