District public health workers are photographed disinfecting a street in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
As South Korea embarks on a journey back to normal in a matter of mere days, its public health officials are pointing to Halloween as a potential surge event. Their messaging discouraging people from socializing over the holiday has a specific audience -- foreigners and young people.
A release last week from the Ministry of Health and Welfare said Halloween special inspections for social distancing violations will be carried out in “areas densely populated by foreigners and young people.” The stiffest penalty that can be given to a non-Korean national found breaching COVID-19 rules is deportation, it said.
Bars, nightclubs and other nightlife spots in Seoul’s party neighborhoods such as Itaewon, Hongdae and Gangnam in particular will be watched closely from Wednesday to next Tuesday, the ministry said.
Ministry spokesperson Son Young-rae reiterated during Wednesday’s briefing that Halloween is “more widely celebrated among certain cultures and in neighborhoods that foreigners frequent, which will come under closer inspections for possible safety violations.”
In response to a press query pointing out the focus on foreigners was discriminatory, he denied that was the case and said it was “younger parts of the city where Halloween celebrations usually take place, and where such events are scheduled, that the inspection efforts will center on.” “So it’s not specific to foreigners.”
As for the deportation warning, he said it was mentioned as “one of the penalties for foreigners violating COVID-19 safety regulations.” “Korean nationals are punished just as severely for the same violations,” he said.
Asked if there had been instances where a noncitizen had been deported for not complying with the country’s COVID-19 policies, he declined to comment, saying such decisions were not within the ministry’s jurisdiction.
This is not the first time that a high-ranking public official has linked Halloween-related COVID-19 concerns with the country’s foreign population.
In a meeting at the government’s COVID-19 response headquarters Tuesday, Prime Minister Kim Bu-gyeom called on health officials to “keep the Halloween risk in check,” adding that “the vaccination rate is not high enough among younger people and foreigners.”
On the Halloween messages from the government, Suh Chae-wan of Lawyers for a Democratic Society’s Human Rights Defense Center said “singling out foreigners or young people as though they are to blame in the event of a spread in itself is discriminatory in nature.”
“It’s like deflecting the responsibility for infection control onto them,” he said.
Even if a formal legal basis for such punishment can be provided, if executed in practice, “it would be hard to avoid controversy over constitutionality,” he said. The likely risk of a Halloween spread is “ambiguous,” he said, and the “forewarned consequences facing certain groups too excessive, from a rights perspective.”
“The kind of public health communication Korea needs right now is to stress the importance of personal hygiene practices as social distancing eases,” infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University said. “Telling people it’s OK to gather Nov. 1 but not Oct. 31 is not going to be very convincing.”
Highlighting any particular group as a spread risk “does not help public health,” he said. “In fact, the opposite is achieved by ostracizing certain people from the collective effort. We’re all in this together.”
Halloween last year was a quiet affair in Itaewon, long a base of large expat communities, according to a Yongsan official, despite the attention it’s gained. “Most drinking establishments in the district closed down voluntarily during the period,” he said in a phone call. No outbreak had been tied to the holiday then, at least not in Itaewon.
This year, too, as the most restrictive tier of social distancing is still in effect through Sunday, businesses offering drinking and dancing cannot open at night. But the Yongsan office, together with police, will still be making the rounds to ensure there are no violations, he said.
Other popular Halloween destinations say they are cautious about opening up.
Theme parks Lotte World and Everland said their parades and activities “will still be masked and socially distanced” until November dawns and restrictions are lifted.
A Lotte World representative said there has been “no significant rebound in visitors,” at least not so far, and that the park is not expecting a big increase in visits over the weekend. “I don’t think we are going to see much ‘Halloween effect,’” she said. An Everland employee said that for the second year in a row, Halloween will be “low-key,” and safety measures like cleaning and disinfecting between rides are set to last beyond this month or the next.
As public venues face regulations, parties are going private. At least three rentable event spaces in the university districts of Sinchon and Hongdae in western Seoul said they had received more booking inquiries for this weekend than for any other weekend in the past month.
Public health officials have warned of “stern penalties” for both businesses and customers if they are caught breaching curfews or the ban on large social gatherings -- both of which are set to expire Nov. 1.
Cases are creeping up once again ahead of the first phase of Korea’s November return to normal. The count of new cases on Wednesday climbed to nearly 2,000, after hovering at over 1,000 for the past week, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s situation report showed.
In a bid to return to normal, Korea plans to abandon social distancing requirements and other pandemic-related restrictions in three phases, together lasting about 12 weeks, according to government announcements Monday.