A shopper walks along the alleyway of a market during snow fall in Seoul on January 12, 2021. Photo: AFP/ Ed Jones

SEOUL  – South Korea appears to have turned the tide in its toughest battle yet against Covid-19 but with its populace weary of social-distancing authorities now face collateral damage.

The country has been widely admired globally for the government’s effective anti-pandemic measures and for the public’s orderly acceptance of them. Barring the shenanigans of right-wing Christian protesters in the early days of the pandemic, there have been no protests against social distancing rules and mandatory mask-wearing in public.

Now, however, a crack is appearing in the facade of public acceptance. Civil disobedience is rearing its head as some gym owners are reportedly opening their businesses in defiance of mandatory closures.

And legal cases are piling up. Groups of gym and cafe owners are demanding government compensation for loss of business, while the country’s most respected NGO is preparing a constitutional petition on behalf of small business owners.

This means pressure is rising against the government ahead of a January 17 meeting in which related authorities will decide whether to maintain, raise of lower current social distancing measures.

Third wave contained?

South Korea has deployed mass testing facilities and a high-tech, well resourced contact tracing system to combat the novel coronavirus while juggling social distancing measures as the situation requires.

The pandemic’s first wave in the spring and second wave in the summer were successfully contained. And while lockdowns were ordered in places like London and New York, devastating the economies of those cities, none has been instituted in Korea.

As a result, the country has won widespread global kudos for its effective response. However, it has been having far more difficulty since November containing the third wave.

Over a distinctly un-merry Christmas-New Year holiday season, daily new infections fluctuated around 1,000. The country teetered on the brink of its toughest social distancing measures – Level 3 – the top end of a five-tier system.

Authorities are resisting applying Level 3, citing the financial damage it would do to millions of small business owners.

Even so, the Level 2.5 restrictions that were applied in mid-December demand, among other measures, the gyms close completely, cafes serve only takeout beverages and that restaurants close at 9pm.

And in an additional, ad hoc measure designed to obviate seasonal party gatherings, meetings of more than four people in the capital area were banned in a move informally dubbed “Level 2.75” social distancing.

A medical worker carries out Covid tests at a makeshift clinic in central Sangju, South Korea. Photo: Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto

After considerable jitters, the situation seems to have stabilized.

In a country of 51 million people, there were just 537 new cases on Tuesday, following 451 on Monday. Caseloads are approximately where there were in mid-November – well below the peaks of late December.

According to graphics from Johns Hopkins University, Korea’s cases have been largely trending down since December 31. So far this year, a new daily caseload of 1,000 has been breached only once, on January 3.

Last Friday, the head of the national anti-pandemic task force, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told the National Assembly, “I want to be cautious, but I believe that we have gotten past the peak” of the third virus wave.

But while Chung may heave a sigh of relief on one front, a new challenge is emerging on another.

Business pushes back

The apparent suicide of a gym owner on New Year’s Day received major news coverage, and some gym owners have reportedly opened their facilities in defiance of the government. On Tuesday, gym owners launched new legal action.

According to local news reports, 203 gym owners belonging to the Pilates and Fitness Business Association filed suit in a Seoul court for 5 million won (US$4,549) each, or about 1 billion won in total. It was their second such suit. The group had demanded 765 million won in its first suit, filed last month.

Members of the public stand apart as they queue for tests. Authorities are facing push-back over social distancing. Photo: Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto

News images showed weightlifters protesting by working out, topless, outside the court. Reports say some gym owners are defying the government and opening their facilities.

According to the same news reports, about 200 cafe owners announced their plan to file suit against the government, seeking 5 million won in damages each, the national cafe owners association said Monday.

“We’re filing a suit out of desperation because our livelihoods are at risk due to the government’s Covid-19 regulations,” Ko Jang-soo, who recently founded the cafe owners association, told local media.

And yet more legal action is in the works.

Kim Nam-ju, a lawyer affiliated with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy – arguably, Korea’s best-known and highly respected NGO – is filing constitutional petitions on behalf of associations of internet cafe operators and tenants of commercial buildings who operate small businesses.

“Gatherings can be legally restricted, but business cannot be legally restricted, and according to property rights, compensation should be made,” Kim told Asia Times. “The current disaster support fund is not enough.”

The latter reference was to two tranches of government financial support disbursed to affected business owners last year.

Asked to assess the chances of the success of his action, Kim said, “We will have to see.” The key issue, he said, was whether his suit would be accepted by the Constitutional Court.

New Year’s Day streets are empty due to pandemic restrictions in Seoul. Photo: Jong-Hyun Kim/Anadolu Agency

Regardless, authorities are feeling the heat.

Exceptions to the Level 2.5 measures have been made for certain small businesses of the kind found in every Korean neighborhood, including small cram schools,  ballet classes and taekwondo schools. Each can now run classes of up to nine children.

The prime minister has also suggested an upcoming amelioration of conditions for small business owners.

“While mandating strict adherence in high-risk areas, bold revisions should be made on measures that are either unfair or ineffective,” Chung said during an inter-agency meeting this week, according to Yonhap news agency.

“We can expect anticipated results only when the public, who are the essential agents of the antivirus measures, can practice and accept the rules.”