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Flurry of COVID-19 restrictions cause fatigue across culture scene

At 30 percent audience capacity, large musical productions pushed to the brink

A newly installed edition of Hug Bear stands on a staircase at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. The installation work is part of the Seoul City’s Pink Light campaign, which supports the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sejong Center)
A newly installed edition of Hug Bear stands on a staircase at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. The installation work is part of the Seoul City’s Pink Light campaign, which supports the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sejong Center)
While the authorities are enforcing stricter social distancing rules across the Greater Seoul area to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, the culture sector is confused by the inconsistencies in the restrictions imposed by different governmental authorities.

On Saturday, cultural facilities across Seoul that are funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government were shut down after the city government imposed tighter restrictions.

On Sunday, the central government announced that Level 2.5 social distancing would be implemented across the Greater Seoul area from Tuesday. The Level 2.5 social distancing scheme allows state-funded cultural facilities managed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to continue operating with a restriction that visitors be kept to a maximum of 30 percent of total capacity.

Aware of the hole created by the different requirements of the two different social distancing schemes implemented by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the disease control authorities, Seoul City on Monday asked the Culture Ministry to shut down its cultural facilities across Seoul.

Some nine cultural facilities in Seoul -- including the National Museum of Korea, and the Seoul and Deoksugung branches of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea -- operated by the Culture Ministry were shut down Tuesday and will remain closed until Dec. 18.

Eight theaters, from the National Theater of Korea to the National Gugak Center, will halt their operations, except for the scheduled performances by private art groups and individuals. Seven national art troupes will halt their activities in Seoul, but will continue to perform outside of Seoul.

“We have canceled all of our in-house performances coming up Dec. 18 to comply with the government’s social distancing plan,” an official from the Seoul Arts Center said Tuesday. “As of now, none of the performances for which we rent out the concert venues have been canceled yet.”

Also, the Korea National Opera had to cancel its performance of “La Boheme” at the Seoul Arts Center slated for Thursday and Friday. However, its engagement in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, Dec. 23-24, has not been canceled.

Some government-funded cultural facilities in Gyeonggi Province can remain in operation as well. For example, the MMCA branch in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, will accept visitors through online reservations.

Private art theaters across the Greater Seoul area can continue to operate but must keep two-thirds of their seats empty.

However, show organizers say the restrictions make shows financially untenable.

For example, audience occupancy of 70 percent is considered the break-even point for major musical productions and the 30 percent limit on audience capacity will push the virus-hit musical scene to the brink, according to industry insiders.

“We were all prepared to go onstage and the show is canceled at the last minute. Of course, (the restrictions) are for the safety of everyone. But still, the hope of performing followed by disappointment from cancellation wears us out,” a person involved in local show productions said.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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