Vaccine passes nixed for movies, hagwon, big stores
After a matter of weeks, Korea is doing away with vaccine pass requirements to get into department stores, movie theaters and hagwon (cram schools), starting Tuesday.
Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol announced in a Covid-19 response meeting Monday that the government will waive the vaccine pass system on six types of facilities at which “people can wear masks at all times and have less activities that produce droplets.”
They include large stores including department stores and big supermarkets; hagwon; reading rooms and study cafes; libraries; movie theaters and performance halls; and museums.
From Tuesday, visitors no longer need to present a vaccination certificate or a negative PCR test result, and only have to check in with location QR code, call a designated phone number or fill out a contact sheet, as was require through most of last year.
While eating will still be prohibited in hagwon and reading rooms, vaccine passes will be required at restaurants and cafes inside department stores and big supermarkets.
Some types of hagwon teaching subjects that make mask-wearing difficult or produce a lot of droplets — such as wind instruments, singing, and acting — will keep the pass system.
Performances at non-regular performance venues of more than 49 people will also be subject to vaccine pass mandates, considering there can be a lot of cheering and chanting.
The remaining 11 types of facilities requiring vaccine passes — restaurants, cafes, bars and other drinking establishments with entertainment, indoor sports facilities, noraebang (singing rooms), public bathhouses, PC bang (internet cafe) and party rooms — will continue to do so.
“Compared to last month, the Covid-19 scale has reduced while the medical capacity expanded,” the health minister explained. “We decided to increase public receptivity [to the vaccine pass system] by easing vaccine pass requirements in facilities considered at low risk of infection.”
Kwon added that “an overhaul was needed [to ease] public confusion following the conflicting decisions of local courts.”
A Seoul administrative court on last Friday decided to suspend the vaccine pass system for minors between the ages of 12 to 18, as well as for large-sized supermarkets and department stores — although only in Seoul. On the same day, another Seoul administrative court dismissed a similar case, which called for the suspension of the vaccine pass system at big stores.
The government once again asserted that vaccine mandates for minors aged between 12 to 18 — scheduled to be implemented from March — are necessary, saying that that age group accounts for over 25 percent of all Covid-19 cases.
Confusion about the system for teenagers is likely to continue for a while.
Although private educational facilities, the main issue for youths, have been excluded from vaccine mandates, other places frequented by teenagers such as restaurants, cafes, PC bang and noraebang, still need passes — and the local court's recent halt of the system for minors only pertains to Seoul.
Health authorities noted that the latest decision on the vaccine pass system is “not permanent but a temporary measure reflecting the virus situation and public health system,” and warned that changes could be made again if the virus situation worsens.
Meanwhile, the Omicron variant is expected to become the dominant strain starting this weekend.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported Monday that Omicron infections rose by 2,679 in the past week from Jan. 9 to 15, raising the accumulative caseload to 5,030 since the first case was found on Dec. 1 last year. Of newly diagnosed cases, 1,363 were from abroad — 743 cases were imported from the United States, followed by Canada with 84, the Philippines with 73 and India with 61.
The number of new Omicron cases more than doubled compared to the previous week.
According to the KDCA, Omicron accounted for 26.7 percent of new local Covid-19 cases reported last week, and 94.7 percent of overseas cases.
The agency believes Omicron will surpass the Delta variant and take up half or more among total infections, becoming the dominant strain in Korea by this weekend.
Once the variant becomes dominant, or daily Covid-19 cases exceed the 7,000-mark, the government plans to initiate an emergency response system designed to deal with Omicron. This includes testing and treating Covid-19 patients at local hospitals and medical clinics; giving PCR-testing priority to people at higher risk including the elderly over 64; and reducing the quarantine period for patients from ten to seven days.
Seeing the variant accelerate, health authorities expressed concerns, saying, “With the Lunar New Year holidays approaching, when nationwide travels are expected, a large-scale wave of Omicron is inevitable,” and warned that Korea could also “follow the path of other countries suffering from social dysfunctions” if it mishandles the variant.
Meanwhile, Korea prescribed Pfizer’s oral Covid-19 pill, Paxlovid, to a total of 39 people — including 31 patients receiving at-home care and eight people treated at residential treatment centers — from Jan. 14 through 16.
Health authorities said no side effect cases had yet been reported, and the majority had shown improvement after taking the pills.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]