Women attend a dance class at Seodaemun Senior Welfare Centre in Seoul on July 1. New rules apply to leisure activities. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL – South Korean capital residents will soon find out who their real friends are. New Covid-19 containment rules mandate that a maximum of two people may wine and dine together from 6:00pm to 5:00am.

That is just one of many new social distancing conditions that took effect in Seoul and its surrounding area on Monday in response to an unwelcome new surge of the pandemic.

South Korea saw 1,100 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, a fall from the 1,324 tallied on Sunday, which itself was slightly down on Saturday’s 1,378.

But the latter was the highest number of daily infections South Korea recorded since it was first hit by the pandemic in March 2020.

Some 80% of recent infections have been detected in the greater Seoul area, home to about 50% of the country’s 51 million people. So far, the country has suffered only 2,044 deaths from Covid-19 without a single full lockdown.  

That indicates how successful South Korea has been at preventing deaths compared with many countries in Europe, North America and Latin America.

“It is a great position to be in relative to anyone else,” said Jerome Kim, who heads the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute. “But it is a horrible position to be in for Korea.”

The new “Level 4” social distancing rules are the closest Korea has come to a full lockdown.

They will reportedly remain in place until July 25, when authorities will reconvene and decide whether to continue or downgrade to a softer regimen depending upon infection numbers.

The rules, as reported by Yonhap news agency, a partly government-owned media, are highly detailed.

Parts of Seoul, such as shopping precinct Myeong Dong and the Itaewon (pictured) a nightlife district, have been hard hit by the pandemic. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Nanny state, do your thing

Restaurants – and many bars in the capital which serve food as well as alcohol that fall under the rubric of “restaurants” – may remain open until 10:00pm. During daylight hours they will be permitted to serve four-person groups, but in the evenings only seatings of two are allowed.

Foreign visitors are frequently gobsmacked by the ubiquity of coffee shops in South Korea’s cities and towns, and there is an upside for the country’s millions of caffeine addicts. Cafes will be allowed to continue serving customers inside within the restrictions applied to restaurants unlike an earlier round of social distancing when only takeout was permitted.

When it comes to weddings and funerals, matters are not too dire: 49 attendees are permitted.

If you have a beef with authorities, however, you are largely out of luck. The only protests permitted are those by a single demonstrator.

Religious services are now online only. Christian services have been a frequent and notorious vector for infection since the nation’s first major cluster, in the southeastern city of Daegu, early in the pandemic.

Schooling is also to go back online albeit with a two-day grace period for full implementation.

Spectators cannot attend sports events. Impromptu performances, regardless of genre, are banned indoors and outdoors. However, performing art venues that have pre-sold seats can host up to 5,000 attendees.

Cinemas, internet cafes and cram schools are permitted to remain open until 10:00pm. But other after-hours facilities that offer entertainment – such as bars that serve no food, nightclubs and karaoke – are shuttered.

A visitor uses a Covid rapid self-test kit before entering a music festival at Olympic park in Seoul on June 26. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je)

The government clearly has an eye on the economy.  Workplaces are to implement phased shifts and rotating lunch hours. Employers are recommended to require 30% of staff to work from home. However, these rules are waived for the manufacturing sector – the heart of Korea’s powerhouse export base.

No more than four members of a family are allowed to gather. Fortunately for families of more than four who co-habit, the rule is waived.

Leisure activities such as hiking and golf are also subject to the four-person cap, while fitness buffs who patronize indoor facilities may find themselves bewildered by new rules designed to stop transmission by sweat and saliva.

Showers in gyms are closed. Treadmills must be set at 6 kilometers per hour, while high-energy activities such as aerobics must slow the tempo of their music to 100-120 beats per minute.

The country’s strict, and strictly observed, masking rules continue as before. Masks are to be worn in public spaces and public transport at all times, with non-compliance subject to on-the-spot fines.

Two-person dinners are the new norm in Seoul as more stringent social distancing rules come into effect. Photo: Tom Coyner

Covid weariness sets in

The enforcement of social distancing rules, this correspondent observers, is largely down to public obedience and/or peer pressure. But summer vacation season is approaching, and some see a public growing lax about restrictions.

“They clearly want to open up but messages have got more confusing about what is acceptable behavior or not,” said Kim of the International Vaccine Institute.

“It is good to have all this social distancing but in familiar settings it is more difficult. People are not wearing masks at home or in the bar and the mask can slip when you are exercising in the gym.”

Seoul has been adroit throughout the pandemic in adjusting social distancing guidelines up and down, balancing the needs for clampdowns with the desires of the citizenry to socialize and for the economy to operate.

But there is no magic bullet.

“If you get a little lax, you get an outbreak and by the time we notice it, it has cascaded through the community,” Kim said. “Level 4 does not shut down the economy but it does put a damper on things.”

The damper is particularly chilling for owners of wining and dining establishments.

New, stricter guidelines, “are very difficult to manage, they instill a lot of fear into the populace and obviously for us, it is almost not worth opening, but we should stay open as we want to do business,” says Tobias Jerling, an expatriate South African who runs The Workshop, a popular rugby-specialized pub-restaurant in Seoul.

“We won’t make money but would rather be open than add to the fear. Life goes on.”

Jerling was speaking to Asia Times by phone from self–isolation. He closed The Workshop for two weeks after one of his barmen tested positive.

When he reopens later this week, Jerling plans to enforce the new social distancing rules with a simple solution. “We will just put two chairs at every table,” he said.

All this is taking place against a wider backdrop of the national inoculation drive.

Vaccinations for elderly people underway at a clinic in Fukuoka City, Japan, on May 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Toshiaki Shimizu /The Yomiuri Shimbun

Europe opens up, Asia hunkers down

Though South Korea has been efficient at containment, it has been slow to vaccinate, with 30.1% of people partly vaccinated, and 11.4% fully vaccinated, according to the FT Vaccine Tracker.

Matters are different in Europe which suffered far higher deaths than Korea, both gross and in percentage terms, but which has inoculated at a faster rate.

In the EU, 53.6% of the population is partly vaccinated and 38.5% are fully vaccinated, as per the same data set. Europe, which just concluded a major football tournament, is clearly easing opening on the back of solid vaccination numbers.

Leading the opening-up charge is the UK, which can boast 68.7% of its population is partly vaccinated and 55.2% fully vaccinated, according to the FT data.

London is announcing the lifting of all social distancing despite soaring case loads – but not soaring hospitalizations or deaths. For many around the world, what happens in the UK in the weeks ahead will be a litmus test, though many experts are warning that the policy is too risky.

More prudence is apparent in Asia.

Also on Monday, new guidelines took effect in Japan where 28.6% of people are fully vaccinated, as opposed to 16.9% who are partly vaccinated.

Tokyo – just two weeks before the Olympic Games begin – initiated a new state of emergency to encourage citizens to go home early. Under it, alcohol cannot be served and restaurants are required to close by 8:00pm, while large-capacity events face caps of 5,000 people, or 50% of venue capacity.

Still, Koreans and Japanese may consider themselves luckier than some parts of the region.

Thailand is behind even South Korea and Japan in the inoculation race, with partial vaccination rates of 13.1% and full vaccination rates of 4.7%. In Bangkok, military checkpoints have been set up on the streets to prevent non-essential travel amid a semi-lockdown.

“It looks like this summer will be important in terms of getting enough vaccines,” said Kim. “It’s a race between vaccinating and outbreaks, because people are getting tired.”