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[From the scene] Between life and quarantine, Korea begins tricky balancing act

On first day of eased distancing, citizens express confusion

Employees in Seoul on Wednesday prepare to open a public library that has been closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Korea is starting an “everyday life quarantine” scheme for the normalization of schools and public facilities. (Yonhap)
Employees in Seoul on Wednesday prepare to open a public library that has been closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Korea is starting an “everyday life quarantine” scheme for the normalization of schools and public facilities. (Yonhap)


South Korea on Wednesday began to experiment with new ways of life at home, work and in leisure pursuits, with the persistent danger of the novel coronavirus.

The country lifted its six-week social distancing measures and introduced relaxed recommendations called “routine distancing,” for preventing the spread of disease in everyday life.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the new strategy consisted of the “minimum” steps that should be taken to enable even a limited return to normalcy amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We should bear in mind that reopening schools and boosting the economy will be possible only when distancing takes root as (part of our) daily routine,” Chung said at a meeting on the government’s response to COVID-19.

Throughout the monthslong fight against the pandemic, people have grown accustomed to individual preventive measures such as hand-washing and wearing masks.

But creating a new normal with the government’s guidelines at the workplace and during daily leisure activities requires greater voluntary participation and commitment, as the rules have no binding force.

On Wednesday, public institutions were scrambling to resume their operations after restrictions were removed.

National park campgrounds, museums and public libraries are now permitted to open to welcome visitors starved for cultural activities. The opening games of the Korea Baseball Organization season, which began Tuesday, brought excitement to fans even as they are not allowed to attend games for the time being.

Visits to gyms are no longer discouraged, though gymgoers are advised not to shower after a workout at a fitness center and to bring their personal workout clothes and towels -- instead of using items provided by the centers -- to avoid potential exposure to the virus.

Vicky Lee, a 32-year-old freelancer, said her gym would hold off on resuming Zumba and aerobics classes until around June, because it’s difficult to keep 1 meter of distance between all participants. But everything else is getting back to normal.

“It seems like social distancing measures have eased significantly at my gym. About two weeks ago, gym members were required to write down our names and get our temperatures checked to enter the facility. During workouts we had to have our face masks on. But all of this is no longer mandatory starting today. I was also able to take a shower, and the gym provided towels and gym clothes,” she said.

The public is advised to be socially responsible by not staying too long at restaurants and coffee shops. Using delivery food services or taking away remains safer than dining out.

The new rules stipulate that sitting across from each other in places where groups of people gather increases the risk of infection.

Young Park, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who visited a coffee shop with her kindergartener daughter in Seoul’s Mapo area, said she was aware of the recommendation to sit facing in one direction at cafes and restaurants.

“I think it’s awkward and inefficient, especially because I need to keep an eye on my child. I think the government should have implemented that guidance when social distancing measures were stringent,” she said.

Concert halls and movie theaters should block out every other seat. Wearing masks during the running time is recommended for the audience.

“We’re currently allocating seats on every other row. Also we’re emptying a seat between seats if customers request it. But, so far, such requests were very rare and mostly made by those who come in pairs,” a staff member at a large movie theater in Seoul’s Sangam-dong said.

Use of digital payment systems including mobile payment, digital wallet services and QR codes is expected to further expand to minimize physical contact with shop clerks at department stores and supermarkets. Free sample stands for food and cosmetic products may disappear in compliance with government recommendations for suspension.

Churches, which have been on high alert following a series of cluster infections due to people being in close proximity in enclosed spaces, are advised not to have congregants sing hymns together, as the virus can spread through droplets.

By By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com) and Kim Bo-gyung (lisakim425@heraldcorp.com)
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