Despite the pandemic, coffee shops in Seoul continue to pour the black stuff. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Amid fine spring weather and a five-day national holiday, the South Korean government, which has applied one of the lightest social-distancing policies in the developed world, announced further easing and school re-openings.

The country has been widely praised for its early and wide-ranging testing, and more recently for its high-tech contact-tracing methodology, which has synchronized police, mobile phones, credit cards and other databases under the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC. That approach has permitted contact tracing within just ten minutes.

Koreans may also have been aided by their personal sanitary habits and customary practice of wearing masks to counter air pollution. As a result, South Korea – population 51 million – has experienced only 10,801 infections and only 252 deaths.

Remarkably, the country has managed this without enacting a single regional or national lockdown. It has, however, encouraged telecommuting, closed many public facilities, discouraged gatherings and closed schools.

Now, even these genteel measures are being relaxed as the country shifts from social distancing to an “everyday life quarantine system,” from May 6.

Phased school reopening

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said in a briefing on Monday that offline school classes would restart in phases from May 13.

Due to the pandemic, Korean schools did not open for the spring semester this year, but have been conducting online classes from April 9.

The reopening will start sequentially with high- and middle-school seniors on May 13, followed by other grades returning on May 20, May 27 and June 1. However, small schools with less than 60 students will be able to conduct classes for all grades from May 13.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility,” Yoo said at the briefing. The decision was made through consultations with parents, quarantine authorities and local government officials.

As precautions, feeding times will be differentiated by grade and temporary partitions will be set up to prevent large gatherings. Temperature tests will also be established. If a confirmed case appears in a school, that school will immediately revert to online classes, Yoo said.

“Since we don’t have the current guidelines for a new social distancing format, we will need to run quick examinations of the children for about two to three weeks once we [re-start classes],” Kim Mo-ran, a professor of Preventive Medicine at the Graduate School of National Cancer Center, told local media.

Korean universities have been conducting online classes from late February – a strategy that has led to protests from students, who, citing low-quality lectures, have been demanding tuition refunds.

From the second week of May, most universities will be reopening, holding in-person classes and exams.

Opening in stages

Separately, Korea Center for Disease Control Director Jung Eun-kyeong, said at a regular briefing on Monday that there had been no new confirmed domestic community infections and only eight new cases nationwide – all among people who had arrived from overseas.

Monday marked the third straight day the country had recorded no new local infections, the KCDC said.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced that the government “has decided to change the quarantine system and will allow facilities that have been remained closed to reopen.”

Since March 22, a number of publicly run facilities such as museums, galleries and libraries have been closed and the government has “strongly recommended” citizens suspend religious gatherings, indoor sports events and visits to nightclubs, karaoke saloons and similar venues.

“From May 6, we will resume the operation of facilities that have been closed in stages, and allow meetings and events in principle on the condition that they comply with the quarantine guidelines,” Chung said, adding: “Based on the high civic awareness shown by the public, we are planning to implement it in our lives from Wednesday.”

In addition to the re-opening of facilities, dinners, outdoor gatherings and events will be allowed. However, it is unclear whether this marks a significant change, given that South Korea has not locked down any localities, nor has it prevented people leaving their homes or patronizing businesses.

Public compliance, pressure

One reason for the central government’s decision to ease social distancing restrictions was that no cases were confirmed during or after the April 15 legislative elections.

Still, much will depend on civic responsibility.

“Each individual and our society will have to be responsible for containing the virus,” Vice-Health Minister Kim Ganglip said during a press briefing Monday. “It is not about the country going back to where it was before the Covid-19 outbreak. It is about making new norms and culture.”

Some guidance remains. “People need to comply with basic guidelines, such as maintaining at least two meters of distance from each other, even after we move on to the ‘everyday life quarantine,’” the KCDC’s Jeong said.

And Chung admitted that public pressure had been an issue in the recent decisions. “The new guidelines are more of a compromise amid rising social and economic burdens sparked by the pandemic,” he said.

Snapshot

Throughout the pandemic, Asia Times has monitored conditions in the capital, Seoul, in the country’s northwest and on Jeju Island, the country’s top resort destination, off its south coast.

In Seoul, with a population of 10 million, mask-wearing is the prevalent norm and hand sanitizers are ubiquitous in shops, businesses and in building entrances. The downtown central business district of Gwanghwamun is noticeably less bustling than usual.

But while business is down 50-70% in many downtown shops, restaurants and bars, most have remained open and cafes, in particular, appear to be doing their customary roaring trade. Parks and mountain trails continue in use, while public transport has been standing-room-only during peak hours.

On Jeju, with a population of 605,000, the situation is even more relaxed, with mask-wearing noticeably laxer than on the mainland. The island may benefit from an influx of domestic travelers, if global travel restrictions remain in place during the summer vacation season.

Jeju has so far reported only 13 Covid-19 cases, but about 200,000 have visited the island during the ongoing holiday.

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