Soldiers assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division wear masks as they wait for their meals outside a restaurant near Osan Air Base, South Korea, Oct. 20, 2020.

Soldiers assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division wear masks as they wait for their meals outside a restaurant near Osan Air Base, South Korea, Oct. 20, 2020. (Matthew Keeler/Stars and Stripes)

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The U.S. military command in South Korea is raising its coronavirus risk level and imposing new restrictions as the peninsula experiences record-breaking levels of new infections.

South Korea counted 1,078 newly infected coronavirus patients Tuesday, a pandemic record for that country, and 12 deaths, according to the country’s Central Disease Control Headquarters.

U.S. Forces Korea is returning to Health Protection Condition-Charlie, which reflects a substantial risk of the virus spreading, starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, according to a Facebook post by the command on Wednesday evening.

Only mission-essential personnel will report for duty, according to the statement. All others will telework. USFK will review the higher protection level Jan. 4.

Defense Department schools at bases across the Korean Peninsula will close Monday for the two-week winter break. Condition Charlie status normally means schools would revert to remote learning.

Schools will switch to remote learning if condition Charlie persists after the break, according to an email Wednesday to Stars and Stripes from Todd Schlitz, chief of staff of Department of Defense Education Activity, Pacific.

“DoDEA always errs on the side of cautious,” he wrote.

In Seoul, a city of 26 million, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said an urgent need exists for more hospital beds.

“Our country had double digit COVID-19 deaths in just a day, yesterday, for the first time,” Chung said during a meeting Wednesday in Seoul, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

“Unfortunately, 108 COVID-19 precious lives have been sacrificed for the past one month," he said. “Now, our top priority task is to secure sickbeds."

Seoul is already off-limits to U.S. military personnel, along with Busan and other cities, except those who live there or have official business.

“USFK highly encourages all individuals to avoid travel as much as possible across South Korea,” said the announcement about returning to condition Charlie.

Military personnel may travel “bubble to bubble,” if necessary, the post states.

In addition, masks are mandatory in all buildings on U.S. military installations and outdoors when individuals cannot maintain six feet of separation.

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report. Twitter: @JosephDitzler

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Joseph Ditzler is a Marine Corps veteran and the Pacific editor for Stars and Stripes. He’s a native of Pennsylvania and has written for newspapers and websites in Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania. He studied journalism at Penn State and international relations at the University of Oklahoma.

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