Social distance relaxations at last!
Restrictions on operating hours of many businesses such as movie theaters, internet cafes, cram schools and big supermarkets nationwide will be lifted starting Monday.
The 9 p.m. curfew on restaurants, cafes and indoor fitness centers in the greater Seoul area will be relaxed a little and extended to 10 p.m. starting Monday. In regions outside of greater Seoul, the curfew will be lifted entirely.
The ban on gatherings of five people or more will be maintained, but no longer for members of the same family — even if they do not live in the same household.
The government announced Saturday that social distancing measures will be lowered a notch from Level 2.5 to Level 2, the third highest in a five-tier system, in the greater Seoul area and from Level 2 to Level 1.5 for other regions starting Monday through Feb. 28.
Small businesses have been complaining about the prolonged restrictions in place since Dec. 8.
Nighttime entertainment facilities such as clubs, bars and room salons that have been banned from operating will be allowed to operate until 10 p.m. nationwide on the condition that they strictly abide by social distancing rules, such as wearing masks and spacing out visitors. Table-hopping will not be allowed, and dancing will also be prohibited in clubs and other facilities with dance platforms.
Under the adjusted social distancing scheme, starting Monday, some 480,000 businesses in the Seoul metropolitan area, encompassing Gyeonggi and Seoul, such as cram schools, theaters, internet cafes, hair salons, amusement parks and big supermarkets will have all restrictions on operating hours lifted.
Another 430,000 businesses such as restaurants, cafes, fitness centers, singing rooms, standing performance halls and party rooms in greater Seoul will have their operating hours extended to 10 p.m., while some 520,000 such facilities in regions outside the metropolitan area will be free from restrictions on operating hours.
Some social distancing regulations on businesses in provinces and cities outside the greater Seoul area had been already eased on Feb. 8 ahead of Lunar New Year.
Both indoor and outdoor sports facilities such as football and baseball fields will be allowed to hold matches as an exception to the social distancing rules, so long as lists of participants, mask-wearing and other protocol are kept.
Under Level 2 measures, events like weddings and funerals have to be kept to under 100 people, and fewer than 500 people at Level 1.5.
Spectator sports will be limited to a 10-percent capacity under Level 2, and a 30-percent capacity at Level 1.5. Religious facilities have to be kept under 20-percent capacity for Level 2 and under 30 percent for Level 1.5.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Saturday following a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, “The adjusted scheme is to enable a transition from a quarantine that closes the doors of businesses to one in which the people can practice and participate.”
He acknowledged public fatigue over the restrictions but urged everyone to “make an effort to abide by quarantine measures with a sense of autonomy and responsibility.”
The eased measures come as health authorities are still on alert for a possible spike in cases after the Lunar New Year holiday, which ran from Thursday to Sunday, and concerns over overseas variants.
Korea saw new Covid-19 cases in the 300s for two consecutive days, though fewer people were tested over the long weekend.
This was a drop compared to 504 on Wednesday, 403 on Thursday and 362 on Friday.
The KDCA reported eight additional fatalities, bringing the total death toll in Korea to 1,522.
Health authorities confirmed the death of a person in their 20s for the first time in the country Saturday, a patient from Busan who was confirmed Covid-19 positive Thursday and had a pre-existing condition.
The KDCA confirmed six additional variant cases Sunday, bringing the total number of variant infections to 94.
The new cases were all of the British variant and were reported in four travelers from Ghana and one each from Poland and the United Arab Emirates.
The 22 new imported cases included five from the United States, five from Europe and three from Africa.
Health authorities confirmed there was a daily average of 353.1 domestic cases in the past week.
The majority of cases remained concentrated in the metropolitan area, with 147 in Seoul, 77 in Gyeonggi and 19 in Incheon, with infections related to hospitals and family gatherings on the rise.
Soonchunhyang University Seoul Hospital in Yongsan District, central Seoul, reported a total of 56 cases, said the KDCA Sunday, after the first patient was confirmed on Friday and infections spread to medical workers and family members. Some 2,000 hospital staff and contacts are being tested. The entire eighth floor of the hospital, where the first patient was confirmed, has been put under cohort isolation.
Hanyang University Hospital in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, reported 101 cases as of Sunday.
Chung in a Covid-19 response meeting Sunday said, “We welcome the lowering of the social distancing levels tomorrow to give some breathing room [to small-business owners], even a little bit, but infections are occurring in hospitals, sports facilities and other sites,” as well as several religious facilities over the past year.
He noted that 80 percent of infections are concentrated in the metropolitan area, warning that a resurgence of cases is possible at any moment.
Health authorities said that there were over 1,000 reports to the police daily of violations of the government ban on gatherings of five or more over the Lunar New Year holiday.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]