New 5-tier social distancing measure in South Korea as new Covid-19 cases hover around 100 daily

SEOUL – A new five-tier social distancing policy in South Korea means Singaporean Deborah Cheok will be able to watch Disney film Mulan in the cinema with her Korean husband without an empty seat between them as mandated previously.

But she is hesitant to do so, wary of going to public places with poor ventilation, such as movie halls , while Covid-19 is still spreading.

South Korea has been adding around 100 cases a day since social distancing rules were eased to the lowest Level 1 from Oct 12.

One hundred and forty-five cases were reported in the country on Friday (Nov 6), bringing the total to 27,195. The death toll stood at 476.

A stricter and more specific social distancing system that will go into effect on Saturday (Nov 7) aims to “improve effectiveness and adherence to anti-virus rules”, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said when he announced the measure on Nov 1.

It replaces the three-tier system which has been in effect since the end of June. The new measure comprises five levels – 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3.

The country will also be divided into seven zones to give local authorities more control over Covid-19 within their areas. This includes the Seoul capital area (Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi province), Chungcheong, Honam, North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang, Gangwon and Jeju island.

The revised rules are also aimed at minimising the pandemic’s impact on daily lives and business activities, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Friday.

The new Level 1, dubbed “everyday quarantine”, means there are fewer than 100 daily new cases for a week in the capital area, 10 for the sparsely populated Gangwon and Jeju, and 30 for the rest. Basic preventive measures such as wearing masks and using hand sanitisers apply.

High-risk areas such as clubs and bars are required to limit the number of people to one per four square metres, while restaurants and cafes have to keep tables a metre apart or install partitions.

Cinemas and arts theatres are allowed to fill all seats.

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The next two levels mean a regional spread of the coronavirus, with over 100 daily new cases nationally for Level 1.5 and over 300 for Level 2. Certain gatherings of more than 100 people are not allowed, such as in church.

Under Level 2, gatherings are prohibited at clubs and bars, while karaoke rooms and restaurants have to close after 9pm, and cafes can only operate for deliveries and takeaways .

Level 2.5 means a national spread and kicks in if the daily figures surge to 400-500. Events involving 50 people or more are banned, and karaoke rooms closed.

The highest Level 3 takes effect if there are 800 to over 1,000 cases nationwide. Events involving 10 people or more are prohibited and venues such as movie halls, restaurants, cafes, hair salons, private academies and bath houses will have to close. All schools will switch to distance learning.

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Previously, Level 1 meant that the number of daily infections had remained below 50 for 14 straight days, 50-100 for level 2, and more than 100 for level 3. Under the highest Level 3, all meetings of 10 people or more were banned and schools closed.

The change comes as public concern is rising about the growing number of sporadic clusters of infections nationwide.

In Seoul alone, 42 cases were traced to a sauna, 11 to a brokerage house, and seven to the funeral of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee at Samsung Medical Centre last week.

A rehabilitation facility in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province reported 106 cases, while a call centre in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, saw at least 21 cases.

Health authorities admitted that the infection was “spreading faster than contact tracing”, and that surveillance and containment had become increasingly challenging.

They have urged against socialising and gathering indoors, adding that it was crucial to comply with preventive measures such as wearing face masks, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distancing.

The new five-tier social distancing system has drawn some criticism.

Office worker Lee So-ra, 26, thinks that it is only aimed at “reducing dissatisfaction with the government’s control of the outbreak by accepting some people’s complaints”. “I don’t think it will be more effective in preventing the spread of the virus,” she told The Straits Times.

Job seeker Lee Hyun-a, 25, feels there is “no big difference” between the new and old systems.

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“It’s just different frames and can cause confusion,” she said. “We have excellent quarantine measures but I am also worried we can lose control. The economy is important, but the crackdown on social distancing must be strengthened to protect public safety.”

As for Ms Cheok, life will remain the same whatever the rules.

“Regardless of how many tiers they have for social distancing, we will still avoid public places with poor ventilation like cinemas, wear a mask everywhere we go, and drive rather than take public transport,” said the housewife, 29.

“Now that we are entering winter, I’m scared to catch even a normal flu, not to mention Covid-19.”

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