A woman walks past a poster depicting the coronavirus as a bomb in Seoul. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

SEOUL – Bar the face masks, there was no indication of any pandemic at lunch on Friday at La Cantina, the oldest Italian restaurant in Seoul.

The bistro, in a basement around the corner from City Hall, was almost full as customers tucked into plates of pizza and pasta, and chinned glasses of seasonal red wine.

But the obligatory post-luncheon tradition of the Seoul corporate professional – coffee in a cafe with colleagues – has been upended.  

Under current social distancing guidelines, the city’s innumerable coffee shops are allowed only to serve take-out.  This restriction has led to piled up tables and chairs in coffee shops, and caffeine-addicted office workers congregating outside, hands cupped around steaming cups as temperatures drop towards freezing.

And a frigid cloud is hanging over this city and country as an unhappy Christmas looms.

The capital and its surrounding area – a huge, densely packed conurbation that encompasses the port city of Incheon, the electronics manufacturing hub of Suwon and a clutch of funky dormitory towns, home to half of South Korea’s 52 million people – is now under Level 2.5 social distancing, the second-highest level.  

Level 3 would be lockdown.

That might not seem like a disaster to Covid-weary publics around the world. Cities, districts and nations have instituted the radical step ever since China locked down Wuhan, where Covid-19 originated, at the beginning of the year.

But for South Korea, it would be a very unwelcome first.

When Korea became the second country in the world to suffer a mass infection in February, Seoul made clear it would not follow the Chinese model. Instead, it pledged to handle the virus in line with transparent and democratic principles.

And it did exactly that.

The country instituted a globally admired mass-testing system, and subsequently rolled out a high-tech contact tracing system. Authorities relied on pandemic laws dating back to MERS and the good sense of the public to follow social distancing guidelines, which both national and local governments have juggled as cases rose and fell.

It has worked, so far.

A medical staff member takes samples for a Covid-19 test from a visitor at a testing station in Seoul. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

South Korea has one of the lowest per capita infection and death rates in the developed world without a single lockdown.

Now, the possibility that the Korean model may have reached its limit is being raised. In fact, whether the capital or the country will lock down is an inescapable topic of daily conversation.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, told a briefing Friday that the current level of social distancing, implemented on November 24, “appears to have had a limited impact on reducing virus cases.”

On Friday, 689 new cases were reported. Of these, 512 were in Greater Seoul.

Yoon urged the public to strictly follow the current social distancing guidelines, warning that implementing the highest level would significantly impact the economy.

The service sector is already taking a beating.

Cafes in Seoul can only serve takeaways and all dining facilities require incoming customers to register with QR codes or sign in using pen and paper. Indoor sports facilities are shuttered. There are even imdae – “for rent” – signs appearing in the windows of shops in Myeong Dong downtown Seoul’s premier shopping precinct, home to global brands and huge department stores.

The city’s formerly pulsating nightlife is no more. Business is suspended at clubs and karaoke dens. Restaurants are required to close by 9:00 pm. Only takeout meals can be served subsequently. Evening public transport services have been reduced. 

As a result, nighttime streets in the capital are, to recall a cliche from the first wave of the virus in February-March, “eerily silent.”

Authorities have given themselves some leeway before going to lockdown. Level 3 would be implemented if infections exceed 800-1,000 new cases over three days.

Over the last few days, the numbers have been hovering in the high 600s, with 76% of cases being in the greater Seoul area, according to Yoon.

By European or US standards, these levels of daily numbers would be cause for celebration. In South Korea, where the daily cases were in double digits as recently as October, they are ominous.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced on Friday that some 800 police and troops would be mobilized in the capital area to assist with contact tracing.

Shoppers and delivery workers walk past a row of stalls closed following a Covid-19 coronavirus cluster at Namdaemun market in Seoul. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP

And even though 150 makeshift testing stations have been set up across Greater Seoul – with previous test charges being waived – bed shortages for Covid-19 patients are being reported in the capital’s hospitals.

The Health Ministry announced Tuesday that is has secured early access to Covid vaccines developed by four pharmaceutical companies: AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, and Moderna. That would be enough to vaccinate 34 million of South Korea’s 52 million people.

That shows a new urgency. Two months ago, health officials told Asia Times that the country would wait prudently to see the result of other countries’ vaccination efforts before undertaking their own program late in 2021.

Meanwhile, small service businesses are struggling as the infection rate climbs.

Pae Kyung-hee operates an after-class cram school, or hagwan – a hugely popular small business in education-obsessed South Korea.

Her sector customarily sees a surge in demand during school vacations, but suffered when the first wave to hit Korea in February at the tail end of the winter vacation, and the second wave that hit in August amid the summer holiday. Hagwans now look set to take yet another blow over the winter vacation.

Pae astutely moved to online classes in February.

“I moved online early, so I have not been much damage, and you can get Covid loans from the government of 10-20 million won ($9,100 –$18,300), which is a help, but I have heard from real estate agents that a lot of hagwans are closing,” she told Asia Times. “But this time seems worse than before, and business is really bad. I am not getting any new enrolments.”

Others who don’t have the burden of running a business may be more carefree, but the curtailment of activities looks set to make for an unseasonably quiet year-end.

“Me and my friends don’t think we will go to lockdown, we think it will stay like it is for the next few weeks,” Oh Myeong-eun, a 20-something university student and intern working in downtown Seoul, told Asia Times.  “But we are saying that this Christmas is not going to be as much fun as last year.”