A preventable tragedyThe Gwangju nightclub in which a balcony collapsed on Saturday morning, causing two deaths and over 20 injuries, wasn’t actually a club — at least officially. The Coyote Ugly was registered with the Gwangju Seo District Office as a “general restaurant” that sold alcoholic beverages and allowed customers to dance, better known in Korean society as “lounge bars.” Such establishments have mushroomed all over the country over the past several years.
Unlike proper nightclubs, places like Coyote Ugly aren’t allowed to build dancing stages, and by law, people are only allowed to dance in their seats. But that hasn’t stopped these unofficial clubs from making space for dancing stages anyway. The indoor balcony that collapsed in Coyote Ugly is one such example. Some 40 people were dancing on the balcony, which was 248 square feet, in the early hours of Saturday when the steel structures supporting it snapped, causing the loft to fall 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) to the ground.
Three years ago, local government offices legally paved the way for entrepreneurs to run quasi-clubs like Coyote Ugly by allowing them to operate lounge bars where their customers could drink and dance. The backdrop to this deregulatory act was reality: many places in Hongdae, western Seoul, were already operating club-like bars without receiving official permission from their district offices.
But the problem with many of those lounge bars is that they go against the law by building dancing stages. The Gwangju Seo District Office, by law, was supposed to check for irregularities at Coyote Ugly twice every year, but did not.
In June 2018, the club’s owner was indicted on criminal charges of professional negligence resulting in injury after a female customer who was under the balcony got injured by material that fell from the balcony’s floor. In the end, the owner was fined 2 million won ($1,690), yet the Gwangju Seo District Office did not order him to change the club’s interior.
Had the public official in charge of supervising Coyote Ugly cared to check on the club during its busiest hours, he or she would have easily witnessed how people were dancing on the balcony.
Clubs normally have small entrances and loud music. They’re overcrowded and dark. That’s why club owners have to make sure their establishments are safe, and why local government offices should check whether those clubs are following safety standards. Deregulation should not lead to deaths.