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How will unvaccinated cope with vaccine pass mandate at big stores?

Online shopping, small markets are alternatives, while some consider PCR tests

A visitor to a Lotte Department Store in central Seoul checks in with a QR code. (Yonhap)
A visitor to a Lotte Department Store in central Seoul checks in with a QR code. (Yonhap)
From Monday, Korea’s vaccine pass regime is expanded to department stores and big supermarkets measuring 3,000 square meters or more.

Following a weeklong grace period, people will be asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result before entering the retail outlets. 

The recent expansion of the vaccine pass mandate to those stores, announced Dec. 31, 2021, is part of the government’s tougher social distancing rules to contain the recent virus resurgence.

Ahead of the upcoming implementation of stricter vaccine pass requirements, concerns are mounting among people who have so far refused COVID-19 vaccination. 

A woman surnamed Bae, a 59-year-old housewife residing in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi Province, decided not to receive a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine last year as she had suffered from a rash and wheals on her back after getting the first shot. Now she’s learning from her daughter how to order groceries through mobile apps. 

“I usually have an allergic reaction to flu shots. With worries over additional side effects that are worse than wheals, I gave up having the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine,” she said.

“Thanks to a one-week grace period before businesses enforce the measure, I have some spare time to buy necessities in advance. But it will get on my nerves near Seollal, which falls on Feb. 1 this year, with the holiday period running from Jan. 31-Feb. 2. I’d like to cook delicious meals for my daughter and grandson, but I’m not used to selecting fine quality meats or fish products online. I think I should go to nearby traditional markets.”

Starting Jan. 17, department stores and big grocery stores violating the new quarantine rule will be fined up to 3 million won ($2,500). The requirement doesn’t apply to small supermarket chains of retail conglomerates called “super supermarkets,” such as E-mart Everyday or Lotte Super, or convenience store chains that are smaller than 3,000 square meters.

For unvaccinated pregnant women, many of whom are reluctant to be vaccinated to avoid possible side effects, the updated regulation means less chance to get outside. 

“Without proof of vaccination, I’ve been blocked from entering public places in line with the government’s vaccine pass mandate. So, I used to go to department stores with my husband on weekends, not merely to shop, but to enjoy the vibes outside as I spend most of my time at home,” said Shin Mi-jeong, 32, who lives in Songdo, Incheon and is expecting a baby in March.

Restaurants and cafes at department stores had been less stringent on the vaccine pass requirement before the government announced the revised scheme in December, she added. 

“I’m not going to receive a vaccination against COVID-19 for the time being. A growing number of side effects reported among people vaccinated scare me. I’m afraid I’ll give negative influences to my baby after getting vaccine shots.”

Some unvaccinated people would be willing to receive PCR tests to access department stores and big supermarkets. 

Woo Seong-young, 33, who lives in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, has remained unvaccinated with fears over potential side effects with her chronic disk herniation. “I’m planning to take PCR tests whenever I need to shop at department stores and big grocery stores,” she said.

“Since I’m teaching music at a high school every other day, I’m getting a PCR test at least twice a week, so I’m pretty used to it.”

Woo Yoon-kyung, another unvaccinated woman in her 30s working at an office in Seoul, has taken PCR tests several times, either to participate in company dinners or business meetings at cafes, and she said she also plans to receive coronavirus tests for entry into big shopping malls.

Facing the same issue, Lee Ro-mi, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul, said, “I became more hostile toward COVID-19 vaccines as the government tries to force people to get vaccinated without working on countermeasures against side effects. I will respond to its vaccine pass mandate applied to department stores and big grocery stores by having PCR tests or using online shopping platforms.”

Despite backlash from the unvaccinated, the government is pushing ahead with the addition of those stores to a list of multiuse facilities subject to the vaccine pass regime, in an effort to stem the virus surge and spread of the more transmissible omicron variant.

"The vaccine pass is a system aimed at accelerating people’s gradual return to normal life. More discussion is needed to find balance between virus prevention and human rights. If it needs improvement, the government will do it with an open mind," Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said during the COVID-19 Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meeting held Friday at the government complex in Seoul.

By Choi Jae-hee (cjh@heraldcorp.com)
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