FILE PHOTO: A Seoul shopping street is pictured amid tightened social distancing rules

FILE PHOTO: A woman skateboards on a shopping street amid tightened social distancing rules due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Heo Ran/File Photo

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea said on Friday it would lift stringent anti-coronavirus curbs on social gatherings next week, as the country prepares to switch to a 'living with COVID-19' strategy amid rising vaccination levels.

A new panel established this week is drawing up a plan for a gradual return to normalcy https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-planning-live-more-normally-with-covid-19-after-october-2021-09-08 in the long term, eventually lifting sweeping restrictions and reopening the economy in November on the expectation that 80% of the adult population will be fully vaccinated.

From Monday, the government will allow gatherings of up to four unvaccinated people, and ease operating-hour restrictions imposed on venues like restaurants, cafes and cinemas, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a COVID-19 response meeting.

In the Seoul area, gatherings of up to eight people will be allowed if a group includes four fully vaccinated people, and in other regions, up to 10 people will be allowed to gather.

South Korea never imposed a full lockdown, but has been under its tightest possible social distancing curbs, including a cap on gatherings of more than two people after 6 p.m. since July when the fourth wave of infections started.

The relaxation will also allow outdoor sports events to take place in front of crowds, rather than behind closed doors as at present, if 30% of all spectators are fully vaccinated, Lee Ki-il, deputy minister of health care policy, told a briefing.

"For the past year and eight months, everyone has done their best to find light at the end of a long tunnel - the pandemic - and the glimmer of light is getting closer," Prime Minister Kim said.

"The rest of October with a fortnight remaining will be the final test to stepping towards restored routines."

The new social distancing rules will be imposed until Oct. 31, after which the authorities will announce a more inclusive strategy for small businesses and the self-employed, hit hard by the sweeping curbs.

South Korea reported 1,684 new COVID-19 cases for Thursday, bringing its cumulative tally to 339,361 infections with 2,626 deaths. It has fully vaccinated 62.5% of its 52 million population, and has given at least one dose of a vaccine to 78.4%.

The country began this month offering boosters https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-vaccinate-12-17-year-olds-give-boosters-elderly-2021-09-27 to those with weakened immune systems or deemed to be at high risk - the elderly, nursing home patients and staff.

President Moon Jae-in, aged 68, received his Pfizer/BioNTech, booster shot on Friday, six months after his second dose of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine in April.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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