SEOUL – South Korea on Tuesday reported its lowest daily increase in coronavirus cases since Feb. 18, as the country restarts professional sports and prepares to reopen schools.
South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported three new infections and two more virus-related deaths, bringing the totals to 10,804 cases and 254 fatalities.
After reporting around 500 new cases daily in early March, infections have slowed over the past month amid tightened border controls and waning transmissions in the worst-hit city of Daegu, which reported zero new cases on Tuesday.
Health authorities remain concerned about a broader “quiet spread” and plan antibody tests to learn how widespread the virus is.
Officials have relaxed social distancing guidelines and decided to reopen schools in phased steps, starting with high school seniors on May 13.
The professional baseball league began its season Tuesday with pictures depicting fans filling vacant seats and cheers from the dugout easily heard in the quiet stadium. The pro soccer league will kick off under similar conditions on Friday.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— AUSTRALIA SUSPECTS MARKET ORIGIN: Australia’s prime minister still suspects the coronavirus originated in a Chinese wildlife market despite U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocating a theory that it began in a laboratory. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he has written to Group of 20 government leaders calling for a “proper assessment” of the origin of and government responses to the pandemic. Pompeo has contended without offering proof that the virus began in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. China has dismissed calls for an independent inquiry.
— SRI LANKA ALLOWS STRANDED TO LEAVE: Hundreds of people stranded in Sri Lanka's capital by a blanket curfew have been allowed to return to their homes. Police spokesman Jaliya Senarathna said 500 were selected from among the thousands stranded with priority given to pregnant women, mothers with small children and people with prolonged sicknesses. They must undergo a 14-day quarantine when they reach their homes. The curfew imposed on March 20 bans non-essential travel, but stranded people have been urging the government to allow them to return home. Colombo is among the hardest-hit places in the country. Sri Lanka has counted 755 cases and on Monday, the death toll rose to eight.
— DUTERTE APOLOGIZES: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte apologized to two tycoons he once threatened to arrest and thanked them for helping in the coronavirus pandemic, which he says “humbled me.” The president asked Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Manuel Pangilinan for forgiveness. Both have arranged financial aid for thousands of their employees and helped the government deal with the contagion. Before the pandemic, Duterte had alleged their water concession contracts violated anti-graft laws and accused them of economic sabotage. The water utility companies denied any wrongdoing. Duterte’s administration has scrambled to finance aid for poor Filipinos he fears may starve under a lockdown to fight the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 10,000 people and killed 623.
— SINGLE CASE IN CHINA: China reported only a single new case of coronavirus and no new deaths, marking three weeks since it recorded a COVID-19 fatality. The National Health Commission said 395 people remained under treatment in hospitals, while 949 people were under isolation and observation. China has recorded 4,633 deaths from the virus among 82,881 cases, but travel restrictions, testing, quarantining and case tracing policies appear to have stemmed the virus’s spread.
— HONG KONG RELAXES MEASURES: Hong Kong will relax some social distancing measures, allowing businesses such as gyms, cinemas and beauty salons to reopen and doubling the number of people allowed at public gatherings to a maximum of eight. Businesses must continue to observe social distancing measures, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday. For example, cinemas are not allowed to fill all of their seats and restaurants must continue to space tables at least five feet apart and provide hand sanitizer to customers. Schools will begin resuming May 27, with students in the more senior grades returning first.
— AIR TRAVEL PLANS: The leaders of Australia and New Zealand say they’re committed to resuming travel between their countries as soon as they can do so safely. The announcement came after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the unusual step of joining her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison and his Cabinet for a discussion by video link. “It is still some time away,” Morrison said of the travel plans. “But it is important to flag it because it is part of the road back.” Both countries have lowered their caseloads with strict lockdowns. Ardern said both countries would benefit, after 1.2 million New Zealanders visited Australia last year and 1.6 million Australians visited New Zealand.
— PAKISTANIS ALLOWED TO GO HOME: About 200 Pakistanis stranded in India's coronavirus lockdown have been able to go home. Border security forces allowed the Pakistanis, wearing masks and riding in private vehicles, to cross the Attari-Wagah border that separates the sprawling Punjab region between Indian and Pakistan. The border opened Tuesday for the first time since the lockdown began.
— BOOZE RETURNS: Businesses have been told to prepare safety plans before pubs, restaurants and other businesses reopen in the booziest part of Australia. The Northern Territory has the highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita and is on track to become the first to reopen bars since a national lockdown began March 23. When they reopen in the territory May 15, alcohol can only be served with food and patrons can't linger more than two hours. The sparsely populated Northern Territory has recorded 30 cases of COVID-19 and no fatalities. A former Northern Territory government leader once described drinking alcohol as a “core social value.”