Asia Today: SKorea advises clubs to close, may delay schools

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A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk climbs the steps past statues at a deserted temple during curfew on Buddha Jayanthi, a day that celebrates the birth of the Buddha, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, May 7, 2020. Sri Lanka has again reimposed a 24-hour countrywide curfew until next Monday, as part of stringent measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Friday advised nightclubs and hostess bars to close for a month and may delay the reopening of schools after linking more than a dozen new coronavirus infections to a club patron in the capital.

Schools were supposed to begin reopening next week, but the fears of a resurgence came after Friday’s disclosure of 25 new cases, South Korea’s first jump above 10 in five days.

“At this moment, it’s too early to say whether we need to postpone the opening of schools, but we will monitor the spread of the virus and review information” from investigations of the new cases, said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fewer cases in previous weeks had allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines and schedule a phased reopening of schools, starting with high school seniors returning next Wednesday.

The government advised nightclubs, hostess bars and similar venues around the country to close for a month after officials detected at least 15 infections linked to a 29-year-old man who visited three clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district on Saturday before testing positive on Wednesday.

Jeong said the man did not wear a mask inside the clubs and that the number of infections will likely rise as health workers trace and test contacts. The clubs’ visitor lists show they received more than 1,500 customers combined on Saturday.

The central government’s advisory doesn’t require clubs to close, but if they become a source of infections after failing to enforce anti-virus measures they could be shut down.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said the new cases included three foreigners and a soldier.

“A drop of ink in clear water spreads swiftly,” Kim said during a briefing, urging vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the virus. “Anyone can become that drop of ink that spreads COVID-19.”

South Korea has reported more than 10,800 cases and 256 deaths from the virus.

Its professional soccer league began its new season on Friday without fans in the stands, following Tuesday’s baseball openers. Earlier this week, troops were allowed to resume leaves after two months of restrictions.

Health officials urged people to reconsider visiting their elderly parents on Friday, which is national parents’ day.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— THAILAND SAYS CHINA, S. KOREA NOT HIGH RISK: Thailand’s health minister says the government has agreed to remove China and South Korea from its list of countries at high risk of coronavirus infections because their daily case counts have dropped. Anutin Charnvirakul said Friday that the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration approved the action but he did not know when it would be implemented. The move would appear to exempt people from China and South Korea from a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon their arrival in Thailand. But it would not mean a sudden influx of visitors, since Thai aviation authorities have banned incoming commercial passenger flights through May 31.

— KIM PRAISES XI: North Korea says leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping praising what he described as China’s success in getting its coronavirus epidemic under control. The report by North Korea’s state media followed an assessment by South Korea’s spy agency that the pandemic is hurting the North’s economy, already crippled by policy failures and U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear program. China is North Korea’s most significant ally and economic lifeline, accounting for about 90% of its external trade. With China’s caseload easing, some experts say North Korea could reach out to China to reinvigorate cross-border trade that has been significantly reduced in past months.

— ABE, TRUMP DISCUSS COOPERATION: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump have agreed to closely cooperate in developing vaccines and drugs for COVID-19. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the leaders exchanged views on the situation, measures to prevent further spread of the virus, development of drugs and vaccines and steps for reopening their economies. He said Abe initiated the phone call. Japan’s Health Ministry, in a rare fast-track process, approved Gilead Sciences Inc.’s antiviral drug remdesivir on Thursday to treat COVID-19 patients.

— CHINA CENSORS EU OP-ED: The European Union delegation to China says Beijing allowed a Chinese state newspaper to publish an op-ed from the delegation only after a reference to the Chinese origins and spread of the coronavirus was removed. “The EU Delegation to China made known its objections to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in no uncertain terms,” the delegation said in a statement Friday. However, it said it decided to proceed with publication to convey key messages on climate change and sustainability, human rights, the importance of multilateralism and debt relief for highly indebted countries. Only the English-language China Daily published the editorial.

— NO TRAVEL TO AUSTRALIA JUST YET: Australia plans to reopen its economy in stages by July, but there are no plans to open to general international travelers in the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said states will set their own pace in easing coronavirus restrictions. Most of Australia hasn’t reported new cases for multiple days but its most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, are recording new cases daily. Morrison was open to international students returning to Australian universities but said general international travel was some time away. The first stage of a national plan agreed upon Friday would let small cafes and restaurants open with customers spaced apart. Children will return to classrooms and groups of 10 people will be allowed to gather outdoors. Playgrounds, golf courses, swimming pools and libraries will reopen.

— LOW-KEY VESAK IN SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists celebrated Vesak — the most important religious festival of the year — in low key because of the coronavirus outbreak, as the government released 228 prisoners to mark the event. The Health Ministry has canceled all celebrations and mass gatherings. Buddhist temples were deserted on Thursday and Friday as monks requested devotees to observe the holiday at home. Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha.

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