Small business owners struggle despite slightly relaxed rules
With Level 2.5 social distancing measures extended for another two weeks, small business owners continue to struggle as customers remain reluctant to drink or dine outside their homes.
The streets still stood nearly empty at lunch time in Namdaemun Market in central Seoul on Monday. Even with the Lunar New Year holiday set to start in just a couple of weeks, the situation hasn’t changed much for store owners in the market.
“Social distancing restrictions are one thing, but customers tend to stay away from visiting the market entirely if they learn coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the surrounding area,” said an accessory seller at Namdaemun Market, adding that the situation “isn’t good.”
A security guard added that even as social distancing guidelines have been slightly relaxed for some businesses, people are still avoiding the market.
“Whether it is Level 2.5 or not, things are just the same around here. Even though restrictions have been relaxed slightly under Level 2.5, there continue to be few customers.”
From Monday, coffee shops in the greater Seoul area, which had been providing only take-out services, are allowed to let customers eat and drink inside their facilities until 9 p.m. People are strongly recommended to stay for only an hour. Restaurants still can’t allow anyone to eat inside their facilities between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Noraebang, or singing rooms, hagwon, or cram schools, and gyms have been allowed to reopen, but can accept only one customer for every 8 square meters (86 square feet) of space.
“We welcome allowing coffee shops and bakeries to [let customers] eat and drink inside their facilities and [reopening] gyms, hagwon and noraebang,” said a task force that consist of small business owners nationwide in a statement Monday.
“But we protest against the extended restrictions on operational hours and the number of customers allowed inside [facilities] without setting differentiated regulation for different industries.”
They urged the government to “realistically reflect on the situation by industry.”
Though customers are allowed to spend time inside coffee shops, they continue to stay away.
“I prepared from the early morning, but there hasn’t been a single customer who stayed inside for a drink,” said an employee at a coffee shop located in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, on Monday morning. “Up until September last year, around 25 people would have been seen drinking inside.”
The situation isn’t much better at sports facilities.
Kim Kyu-il, a 42-year-old gym member, said he is “thinking of taking golf lessons instead of doing a cardio workout” that entails heavy breathing.
“We look forward to quickly easing social distancing measures,” said a spokesperson for Small Enterprise and Market Service, which is a government-affiliated organization under the Ministry of SMEs and Startups. “[We are] considering various measures ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays to help raise sales, like gift coupons.”
BY LEE SOO-KI, LEE BYUNG-JUN, JIN MIN-JI [firstname.lastname@example.org]