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S. Korea to revise COVID-19 rules as cases fall

Fourth relief package under discussion as country hopes to contain virus in coming months

Medical workers process COVID-19 checks Thursday at a temporary diagnostics center made in Incheon. (Yonhap)
Medical workers process COVID-19 checks Thursday at a temporary diagnostics center made in Incheon. (Yonhap)
South Korea is revising its social distancing guidelines to allow certain businesses to operate, as strict virus control measures have wreaked havoc on the lives of small merchants.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a meeting Thursday that the government would take steps to assure fairness and address the financial difficulties facing small businesses, with details to be announced in the coming days.

“As frustration continues and seems endless, people have questioned the virus control standards and there were movements from some sectors opposing them in groups,” Chung said.

“The threat from this third virus wave is getting longer from the seasonal effect and cumulated social fatigue. The government will do better.”

A number of businesses have staged demonstrations and collective actions to protest government restrictions they deem unfair, as well as the lack of compensation from the government.

The government earlier extended Level 2.5 social distancing rules in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province and Level 2 rules for the rest of the country until Jan. 17. An additional ban on private gatherings of five or more people has also been extended to the same date.

Level 2.5 rules categorically disallow the operation of indoor sports facilities, but the government made exceptions allowing small cram schools and ballet and taekwondo schools in the capital region to hold classes for up to nine children at a time.

Complaints immediately followed from small merchants and gym operators, who said they too should have been allowed to operate. Owners of coffee shops, bars and internet cafes joined the movement, asking the government to revise the guidelines and compensate them for their losses.

In response to the growing criticism, the government said Thursday that indoor sports facilities would be allowed to operate starting Friday, with the same cap of nine children at a time.

The Greater Seoul area will also allow high-risk entertainment businesses like bars, clubs and karaoke places to operate when the current social distancing rules expire on Jan. 17.

“The exceptions are made to address the gap in child care, so these indoor athletic facilities will be allowed to operate on the condition that they are open for children only,” said Health Ministry spokesperson Son Young-rae in a press briefing Thursday.

Complaints against the government and its virus control standards came as Korea imposed strict social distancing rules and restrictions on businesses as the country continues to experience its third COVID-19 wave to date.

Korea on Thursday announced 870 new COVID-19 cases reported the previous day -- 833 locally transmitted and 37 imported from overseas -- raising the total number of cases recorded in Korea to 66,686.

The daily number of new cases has stayed below 1,000 for three days in a row, showing signs of a slowdown. The country added 840 new cases Wednesday and 715 on Tuesday.

By Wednesday’s end, Korea had also reported a total of 1,046 deaths from the coronavirus, up 19 from a day earlier. The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 400, down from 411 people a day earlier.

Mass infection clusters continued to be traced to eldercare facilities, and a detention center in Seoul has become the second-largest source of infections in Korea, having had more than 1,000 cases since the first was discovered in late November.

Health authorities vowed to run more COVID-19 checks and heighten monitoring efforts at long-term care facilities and correctional centers to prevent mass infections and identify hidden cases.

The Justice Ministry said Wednesday that it will run weekly COVID-19 checks for all correctional center employees across the country to curb the rapid spread of the virus among inmates and prisoners.

The Dongbu Detention Center in Songpa District, southern Seoul, has reported a total of 1,173 cases and three deaths as of Thursday afternoon, and the ministry has drawn public backlash for not taking prompt action or spending money from its budget to prevent mass outbreaks among inmates and employees.

Officials are also on alert over the global spread of a new COVID-19 variant first reported in Britain. Korea confirmed 15 cases of the newer strain as of Thursday afternoon.

As a response, the country on Friday will start mandating negative COVID-19 test results for foreigners arriving in Korea, with the tests to be taken within 72 hours of departure. Arriving passengers will also be required to undergo additional testing throughout their two-week mandatory self-quarantine.

The country has also extended its suspension of direct flights from Britain for two more weeks until Jan. 21.

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the population, government officials and lawmakers have started reviewing whether to provide emergency relief funds for the fourth time since the outbreak started in January last year.

Korea has so far prepared three rounds of emergency relief payments due to the pandemic, and the latest is to be distributed starting Monday to small merchants whose profits were affected by the government restrictions.

According to a Realmeter poll of 500 adults released Wednesday, 68.1 percent of respondents were in favor of a fourth round of emergency relief funds and 30 percent opposed the idea.

Backed by favorable public opinion, the ruling Democratic Party is pushing to extend emergency funding to all people before the Seoul mayoral by-election in April.

“It is more likely that the handout is for the general population as a means to boost the economy,” Rep. Kim Jong-min of the ruling party said in an MBC radio interview on Thursday.

“A treatment is expected to come out in January, and the number of daily new cases could fall below 500 from the effects of social distancing rules. All these factors are considered in coming up with the plan.”

By Ko Jun-tae (