Seoul — A new coronavirus cluster linked to a South Korean religious group emerged on Monday, with 46 cases at a church near Seoul that defied calls to suspend services.
The Grace River Church in Seongnam, south of the capital, finally closed its doors on Sunday after nearly a third of its 135 worshippers tested positive — including the pastor and his wife.
It continued holding services despite repeated government requests for the public to avoid group activities, including religious meetings.
Forty infections had been newly confirmed among the congregation, Seongnam city authorities said, adding to six previously known.
More than half of South Korea’s 8,200 COVID-19 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect often condemned as a cult.
One of its members attended at least four services in the southern city of Daegu — which became the centre of the country’s epidemic — before being diagnosed.
South Korea was the first country to report significant coronavirus numbers outside China, where the pandemic first emerged, and remains one of the world’s worst-affected countries despite being overtaken by both Italy and Iran in declared cases.
Scores of events from K-pop concerts to sports matches have been cancelled or postponed over the contagion, with school and kindergarten breaks extended by three weeks nationwide.
But recent figures have shown a steep decline in new infections from the beginning of March, raising hopes the outbreak is being brought under control.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced 74 new cases on Monday, the second consecutive day the increase has been below 100.
The death toll remained unchanged at 75.
Authorities have aggressively carried out diagnostic tests for potential patients, with the total number of tests topping a quarter of a million on Sunday.