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[Q&A] Ban on gatherings of 5 or more people explained

A medical worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a makeshift virus testing clinic on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
A medical worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a makeshift virus testing clinic on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
There is some unfortunate news for those who planned to go skiing, who already booked a nice restaurant or hotel room for a party or who wanted to go to the seaside for the New Year’s sunrise.

Private gatherings of five or more people in Seoul and surrounding areas will be banned and popular tourist spots will be shut down starting midnight Wednesday, as health authorities scramble to curb the spread of the coronavirus over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Although the government tightened social distancing rules on top of its rigorous testing and contract-tracing efforts to slow the infection rate, the country’s COVID-19 caseload topped 1,000 for the first time on Dec. 13.

The new rules are in addition to the country’s Level 2.5 social distancing rules that already restricted the size of gatherings, opening hours of businesses, banned dine-in services at cafes and bakeries and closed down indoor sports facilities and more.

The rules are in effect until Jan. 3 next year.

For those left wondering what is allowed and what is not, and those who want to readjust their upcoming year-end plans, The Korea Herald rounded up some questions and answers to help you get a grip on what the new rules would mean for you.


Q. What is the definition of a private gathering?


”Private gathering” refers to any gathering for the purpose of socializing. These include gatherings among friends, year-end parties, New Year’s parties, workshops, housewarming parties and office dinners, among others.

Business and public activities can be conducted in unavoidable circumstances, but are still required to heed Level 2.5 social distancing rules. This includes the filming of TV shows or movies, working at factories and companies and meetings by government officials, for example.


Q. Who is subject to the ban on gatherings of five or more people?

The ban only applies to residents living in Greater Seoul -- Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon -- as a legally binding administrative order was issued by the municipalities. Those violating the rule will face a fine of up to 3 million won ($2,700), and violators can also face compensation suits.

Residents registered in Greater Seoul are required to keep the rule even outside the region. This means gatherings involving five or more Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon residents anywhere in the country will be prohibited. 

Gatherings of more than four people involving only residents from outside Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon are also prohibited when they take place in the Greater Seoul area. 

For residents outside Greater Seoul, the central government recommends -- though not requires -- them to cancel gatherings involving more than four people. Those violating the suggestion would not face punishment.


Q. What about families of more than four people?

Family members from the same registered address can gather at home and outside their home, even if they are more than four people.


Q. What happens if we are divided and seated separately in a restaurant?

Restaurants are not to receive reservations of more than four people at a table. It is also not allowed for a group of more than four people to be split into two groups and seated at two tables at one restaurant.

In case of a violation, the restaurant owner and customers will face fines of up to 3 million won and 100,000 won, respectively.


Q. Can five or more people sit together at workplace cafeterias?

Yes, more than five people can have a meal together as long as they take lunch at the cafeterias at their workplaces. This is because lunches at workplaces are considered business activities.

But having lunch outside the workplace with more than four people is banned, even if they are all from the same company. Such meals are not considered official business gatherings.


Q. What facilities will be shut down?

Across the country, 16 ski resorts, 35 ice rinks and 128 sledding hills as well as New Year’s Day sunrise spots including Jeongdongjin Beach in Gangwon Province and Namsan Seoul Tower in the country’s capital will all be closed until Jan. 3.

Lodging facilities such as hotels, resorts and guesthouses nationwide have been ordered to operate at 50 percent capacity during the designated period. No year-end parties or events are to be held at lodging facilities.


Q. What about private parties in party rooms?

The operation of party rooms is also suspended.


Q. Will department stores, shopping malls and theaters stay open?

Yes, they will remain open. But toughened antivirus measures will apply to 302 department stores and 433 large supermarkets, making it mandatory to conduct temperature checks on customers.

Theaters will be open until 9 p.m., with one seat apart between customers.


Q. What about weddings and funerals?

Wedding and funeral ceremonies will still be permitted in consideration of their unique characteristics, as long as the number of participants is fewer than 50. In Seoul, the limit is 30.


Q. Where can violations of the rules on gatherings be reported?

Reports in English can be filed online at www.safetyreport.go.kr/eng. Personal information is not required, except for the mobile phone number.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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