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[Newsmaker] Indoor sports facilities dissatisfied with 'nonsensical' COVID-19 exceptions

A fitness center in Mapo District, western Seoul, is void of visitors Thursday. (Yonhap)
A fitness center in Mapo District, western Seoul, is void of visitors Thursday. (Yonhap)
Business owners expressed discontent and dissatisfaction toward the government for making “unrealistic” and “nonsensical” exceptions to let indoor sports facilities operate in a limited capacity.

Starting Friday, indoor sports facilities were allowed to reopen their doors with a cap of nine children at a time, an exception the government made to address the gap in child care.

Indoor sports facility owners are frustrated with the response, as the revised rules do not address the real difficulties they face from social distancing rules. Children are not their primary customers, and the exception should have been made to address consumers across age levels, they argue.

“Ninety-nine percent of fitness club users are adults,” said Oh Sung-young, head of the gym owners association in a Facebook post Thursday. “This is not the outcome fitness club owners protested for in the blistering cold.”

Oh added that fitness clubs are faced with mounting debt as strict social distancing rules have prevented normal operation for weeks. Fitness clubs can provide more distance among people and be more safe against the virus than restaurants filled with people not wearing face masks, he said.

“I pay around 10 million won in operation fees for the fitness club, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, I am now left with 1.9 million won in my bank account and 90 million won in bank debt,” he added.

At the moment, Level 2.5 social distancing rules are in effect for Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, and Level 2 rules are imposed on the rest of the country. An additional ban on private gatherings of five or more people is also in effect until Jan. 17.

Level 2.5 rules categorically disallow the operation of indoor sports facilities, but the government had 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.

Small merchants and gym operators made complaints shortly after, saying that they too should have been allowed to operate.

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

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 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.

Indoor athletic facility owners weren’t so pleased with the government’s response, as their businesses are still met with difficulties from the exception was not extended to adults, the primary consumer group for fitness centers.

The government also mentioned that it will revise its social distancing guidelines once the current rules expire by Jan. 17. Officials mentioned that the Greater Seoul area will allow high-risk entertainment businesses like bars, clubs and karaoke places to operate after Jan. 17.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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