South Korea’s virus authorities are asking those in the Greater Seoul area to give up high-speed running on treadmills and fast dance music for group exercises in fitness clubs, as they worry that intense workouts could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 during its most challenging wave to date.
The restrictions under the strictest level of the four-tier system now require many fitness clubs and users to revise their plans, or else face fines. The health authorities have also come under mounting public criticism over rules that people are calling “nonsensical” and “ridiculous.”
Starting Monday, Korea started enforcing the most restrictive social distancing measures in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province for the next two weeks in an effort to overcome record daily COVID-19 case numbers.
Private gatherings of three or more are banned from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. in these areas, and private gatherings of five or more are banned throughout the rest of the day. Violators face fines of up to 100,000 won ($87).
While the general intentions of such rules are acceptable to many, the public isn’t so sure whether some of the detailed clauses, especially those dealing with indoor sports facilities, are really helpful in curbing the spread of the virus.
Under Level 4 rules, taking showers within fitness club premises is prohibited and only a limited number of users are allowed in each area at a time.
At the same time, the running speed on treadmills is capped at 6 kilometers per hour. Music played at group exercise classes at fitness clubs cannot exceed 120 beats per minute.
That means some famous pop songs like “Gangnam Style,” 132 bpm, cannot be played.
“I don’t know what’s more to worry about these droplets when everyone wears masks without exception,” said Jang, a 32-year-old office worker based in Seoul who goes to the gym almost every day after work.
“They require us to wear face masks while working out, check temperature before entry and provide our phone numbers, and I have closely followed these rules every day, and now they want us to stop running and listen to ballads?”
Jang said many of his friends who also exercise at fitness clubs found these measures “illogical and excessive,” and they have discussed how to adjust their workout routines.
“Hardcore cardio has marked the start and end of my daily exercise routines, and now they want me to run slower, but they ask us to leave in two hours,” Jang added. “What do they want from us? Does the government want me to get fat and give up our lifestyle for the sake of these dumb rules?”
Authorities have defended the restrictions on fitness clubs, saying fast music and strenuous cardio exercises could generate more respiratory droplets and cause the virus to spread further.
“When you run faster, you spit out more respiratory droplets, so that’s why we are trying to restrict heavy cardio exercises,” Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said in a radio interview Monday.
“We also agreed on this (120 bpm) standard (with related groups) to transition strenuous aerobic exercises at fitness clubs to less-intense ones.”
While Son agreed that face masks are still effective in preventing the spread of respiratory droplets, he dismissed complaints that the additional rules are excessive. The delta variant is more transmissible and can spread through short, accidental contacts, Son said.
Members of the public have also hit out at potential loopholes, especially on the three-person limit on private gatherings after 6 p.m. The rules seem to state that three people cannot share a cab past 6 p.m., but the authorities said it depends on the situation.
If the three were going to the same private gathering together, it could be a violation, but if each were heading to different destinations, it could be allowed, they explained.
“Like this we should interpret each case by its own situation,” Son said in a press briefing with reporters Monday. “We cannot simply call out a taxi cab with three or more passengers as violating the rules.”
While the authorities emphasize that each violation will be examined in light of its own unique situation, many have cast doubt on how closely the guidelines will be followed. The government has long faced criticism for being vague and inconsistent, and for unfairly applying exemptions.
Yet the results of a poll released Monday indicate that the Level 4 social distancing rules are popular with the public.
According to a Realmeter survey of 500 people aged 18 or above conducted Friday, 71.9 percent of respondents said they positively viewed the government’s decision to implement Level 4 rules in the Greater Seoul area.
The survey results indicated that supporters of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and those who consider themselves apolitically liberal are more in favor of the stiffest social distancing rules being in place.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org