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Halloween evokes COVID-19 nightmares amid easing of restrictions

Halloween is in the air in Everland, one of the largest and most popular theme parks in South Korea. (Everland)
Halloween is in the air in Everland, one of the largest and most popular theme parks in South Korea. (Everland)

Coronavirus fright is spooking many this Halloween as South Korea is set to maintain the least intensive form of social distancing through the end of October.

Out of pandemic awareness, most events and activities will be scaled down. But as the country goes easy on social distancing, skipping the holiday altogether won’t be likely.

Halloween festivals are planned at some of Korea’s largest theme parks, which have suffered a sharp drop in visitors since the pandemic began.

The number of visitors have almost halved this year, according to an official at Everland in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

“The annual festivities have been curtailed in order to prevent transmission. This year, it’s mostly the decor and scenery for people to get the feel of Halloween without necessarily being exposed to the risks,” said an official.

Zombie-themed parades and attractions will be staged at Lotte World in Jamsil, southern Seoul -- in a prevention-minded manner, according to an official there.

“We are doing everything possible to minimize contact among visitors as well as staffers,” she said. “Everyone is checked for symptoms and required to wear face masks at all times.”

Parties will return to the night scene, according to a  27-year-old server at one of the biggest nightclubs in Itaewon, central Seoul.

The nightclub will ask people to wear face masks and keep a log of its guests, but that’s as much as it can do.

“We will tell people to keep the masks on, but obviously not when they are drinking,” he said. He added that if people forgo masks, the club cannot really force them either.

Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kang Do-tae on Monday issued coronavirus warnings ahead of the holiday.

“We worry there will be another spread among young people at nightclubs and bars over the Halloween weekend,” he said. “Remember the earlier outbreak in Itaewon, and refrain from visiting high-risk settings.”

Back in May, an outbreak among clubgoers in Itaewon spawned fears of an outbreak in the capital.

The ministry said it would stick to the least restrictive tier of its social distancing framework at least until the end of this month, in a bid to boost the economy.

Some young people are wary of social distancing waning, which could invite a rise in infections.

An Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, resident in her late 20s who commutes to Seoul five days a week said “hardly anyone” in her circles practiced social distancing anymore.

“Since the social distancing rules were relaxed, it’s been like the coronavirus never happened,” she said.

Others are more intent on having fun.

A Seoul university student said he was “frustrated with everything being canceled.” “I don’t think it’s fair to blame young people for spreading the coronavirus. If it’s OK to go to restaurants and cafes, then it’s OK to go to bars.”

Health experts agree that risks are present any time people gather. To keep Halloween free of a coronavirus scare, parties and celebrations should be kept to a minimum, they said.

Pulmonologist Dr. Chun Eun-mi of western Seoul’s Ewha Womans University Medical Center said social distancing breaches were bound to occur when large crowds are involved.

“My advice is to not do it,” she said. “There have been instances of transmission through social activities when everyone supposedly wore face masks and kept distanced from one another.”

Chun added that the colder temperatures of late October can make it easier for people to get sick while being out and about.

“Catching a cold will be more complex with the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 because of overlapping symptoms,” she said. “The only way to know is to get tested.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul, called for more responsible risk communication from the top.

“In telling people they can ease up on social distancing, the associated risks need to be communicated clearly as well,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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