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Seoul to introduce own social distancing rules to help small-business owners

New mayor opposes current nationwide rules

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a press briefing Monday. (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a press briefing Monday. (Yonhap)
Seoul plans to introduce its own social distancing system as an alternative to South Korea’s nationwide rules out of concern for small-business owners.

In a press briefing Monday, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said the Seoul Metropolitan Government is preparing to announce new social distancing rules exclusively for the city, as the current nationwide system harms small-business owners and merchants.

The city government is looking to have its municipal social distancing rules ready by the end of the coming weekend. Then it intends to start negotiations with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency so they can be put into place.

Oh’s office is also planning a trial run of the new system so it achieves its purpose of containing the virus while protecting the interests of business owners.

Many business owners have considered shutting down their businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic started and some already have, Oh said, which is why the city needs new rules that can protect people from the virus while ensuring the financial stability of its economically active population.

“For the past year and four months, disease control authorities have maintained a social distancing system that suspended or limited operation of businesses, and the direction was set on stopping the spread of COVID-19 even with the sacrifice of business owners and merchants,” the mayor said.

“But the results were much different from what we expected. The threat of another virus wave has come to us multiple times, and even as I speak the fourth virus wave is on the verge of starting.”

As of Sunday’s end, Seoul added 162 new COVID-19 cases, raising its cumulative total to 34,233 cases. The city accounted for roughly 28 percent of the 587 new cases reported throughout Korea by the end of Sunday.

And as the virus situation does not seem likely to end anytime soon, Oh said he could not wait any longer and let the city’s business owners continue to suffer from the operational limits imposed under problematic social distancing rules.

Oh cited a survey the Korea Federation of Micro Enterprise conducted late last year, in which 32.3 percent of respondents said their sales had dropped due to social distancing rules. Respondents also saw their weekly revenue drop as much as 45 percent when social distancing rules were toughened.

“Even though the government is supporting (businesspeople) with disaster relief funds and compensatory measures, these cannot be the final solution, and that is true when the vaccination campaign lasts until the first half of next year as predicted by the current speed of inoculation,” Oh said.

“The fundamental solution to this is letting them open their doors and run their businesses, and Seoul will concentrate all its efforts to let small-business owners and merchants stay in business.”

For the city’s new social distancing system, Oh said, Seoul plans to bring in more COVID-19 self-testing kits for people entering stores, restaurants and entertainment venues. The move would help identify hidden cases quickly while protecting the interests of business owners, he added.

At the moment, no such kits have been approved for use in Korea. The mayor said during the press briefing that on Monday morning he had asked the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to fast-track approval of the self-testing kits currently under review.

Oh said he also plans to bring in more of the rapid COVID-19 testing kits already used by medical workers and test them for use at karaoke establishments, which attract customers at night.

“While minimizing the damage to sales, we will remarkably strengthen virus control rules and carry out a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for noncompliant businesses, giving businesses more responsibility and requirements under the plan,” Oh said.

“The Seoul city government will engage in enough discussions with representative groups and associations in preparing the manual.”

Oh’s move appears directly in opposition to the nationwide virus control rules in place, which many business owners and merchants have vocally opposed through demonstrations and rallies over the past few months.

The conservative main opposition People Power Party, to which Oh belongs, opposes the social distancing rules under the Moon Jae-in government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, saying they are unfair and discriminate against some business sectors.

While the central government said it will review and discuss Seoul’s suggestions when it receives them, KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said Sunday that the current rules were drawn up in accordance with the basic principle of minimizing contact between people and cutting off avenues of transmission for the virus.

“The social distancing rules we have now are in place because we need to reduce the number of people coming into contact as much as possible and stop the transmission of COVID-19,” Jeong said, effectively disagreeing with Seoul’s plans to introduce its own rules.

“That is why certain rules are in place in line with basic social distancing principles.”

By Ko Jun-tae (