By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea declared a “special care zone” on Thursday around a second city hit hard by the coronavirus and the U.S. military confirmed two new cases among relatives of its troops in the country, which is battling the biggest outbreak outside China.
Australia and Japan have joined the list of almost 100 nations now limiting arrivals of people from South Korea, which reported 760 coronavirus cases on Thursday for a total of 6,088.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan will suspend existing visas for visitors from China and South Korea and quarantine them for two weeks in response to the widening outbreak of the flu-like virus.
The measures will go into effect on March 9.
Following the announcement, the South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned a Japanese diplomat to “hear Japan’s explanations regarding its announcement,” Yonhap news agency reported, citing a ministry official.
The South Korean government declared a “special care zone” around Gyeongsan, a city of about 275,000 people 250 km (150 miles) southeast of Seoul, promising extra resources such as face masks.
Gyeongsan has seen a spike in cases in recent days, many of them linked to a fringe Christian group at the center of South Korea’s outbreak. Similar zones have been declared around the neighboring city of Daegu and Cheongdo County.
About 75% of all cases in South Korea are in and around Daegu, its fourth-largest city, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
“Every day is sad and tough like a war. But our Daegu citizens are showing surprise wisdom and courage,” Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin told reporters on Thursday.
About 2,120 patients were waiting for hospital beds in Daegu, city officials said. Dozens of newly commissioned military nurses were due to begin work in the city on Thursday, according to the health ministry.
The KCDC reported five more deaths from the virus, bringing the total to 37. The virus surfaced in China late last year and has infected more than 95,300 people and killed almost 3,300 worldwide, mostly in China, according to a Reuters tally.
South Korea also said it was banning the export of face masks, and would step up their production and ration them to limit individual purchases to two a week, in an attempt to ease shortages and curb hoarding.
People have flocked to supermarkets, pharmacies and online distributors to snap up masks and other supplies, with hundreds lining up at some stores every morning.
KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook advised all South Koreans to stay home and avoid “any gatherings, especially those that take place in enclosed places with many people such as religious events”.
He also advised employers in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, highlighted by tech giants like Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, to allow staff to work from home.
U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) reported two new cases, for a total of six among soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Despite the new cases, USFK had resumed sending troops to bases in Daegu and surrounding areas, according to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
It said commanders believed the bases were protected from the outside population, and troop rotations were needed to maintain readiness in the face of threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.
Australia’s ban on the arrival of foreigners from South Korea is a blow to Seoul’s efforts to prevent the United States from imposing such restrictions.
“It is a deeply regrettable step, and we will closely consult Australian authorities for a swift revocation of the measure and to minimize inconvenience for our citizens,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim In-chul told reporters.
South Korean officials met the U.S. ambassador in Seoul on Wednesday to urge the United States not to limit travel. Similar talks would be held on Friday with diplomats from other nations, the Foreign Ministry said.
According to the U.S. State Department, anyone with a fever of 100.4 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) is already banned from boarding direct flights from South Korea to the United States.
Korean Air Lines said it would screen all departing passengers for high temperatures and reject those deemed a risk.
South Korea also sent three “rapid response” teams to Vietnam on Thursday to help more than 270 citizens quarantined there over coronavirus concerns, the Foreign Ministry said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang; Editing by Stephen Coates and Mark Heinrich)