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S.Korea ramps up economic stimulus as coronavirus restrictions bite

SEOUL, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Measures imposed in South Korea to blunt a surge in coronavirus cases will hurt Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, the government warned on Tuesday, after unprecedented restrictions went into effect in Seoul and surrounding areas.

South Korea’s economy shrunk by a seasonally adjusted 3.2% in the April-June period from the previous quarter, revised central bank data showed, the sharpest contraction since the final quarter of 2008. South Korean exports fell for a sixth straight month in August.

The government unveiled plans to increase spending aggressively for the next few years and said it was prepared to boost policy support should the rate of infection worsen significantly.

“(Some) downturns are inevitable in the real economy due to the tightened preventive measures,” Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beam said at a policy meeting.

In an unprecedented move for South Korea, the government on Friday restricted the operation of restaurants, coffee shops and so-called cram schools in the greater Seoul area. Churches, nightclubs and most public schools had already been ordered to close.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 235 new coronavirus cases as of midnight Monday, bringing the country’s total to 20,182 cases and 324 deaths.

Daily cases have dropped slightly for five straight days, although they have remained in the low-hundreds for nearly three weeks as a second wave of infections sweeps through densely populated Seoul and spreads around the country.

To counter a slump in exports and the retail sector, the government said it planned to boost spending on welfare and jobs by 10.7%, and allocate 11.9% more on social infrastructure projects.

The central bank kept interest rates steady on Thursday, but sharply downgraded its 2020 growth outlook. The Bank of Korea said gross domestic product would likely shrink 1.3% in 2020 - the biggest contraction in more than two decades - from a previous forecast for a 0.2% decline.

In the latest blow to economic activity, a minor league baseball pitcher tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday, casting doubt on the rest of the sport’s season, Yonhap news agency reported.

In late July fans had been allowed to attend baseball games in limited numbers, but with the rising number of infections, stadiums were once again closed to fans by mid-August. (Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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