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Seoul under heightened restrictions as COVID-19 cases spread; small businesses struggle

Seoul under heightened restrictions as COVID-19 cases spread; small businesses struggle
Seoul began its highest level of social distancing guidelines this week as South Korea battles a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 13 (UPI) -- South Korea's capital city of Seoul adjusted to life under the government's strictest social distancing guidelines as the country reported a seventh straight day of COVID-19 cases topping 1,000, with a rise in the highly contagious Delta variant keeping officials on edge.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 1,150 cases on Tuesday, bringing the country's overall total to 170,296 as a fourth wave of the spread is proving to be the most daunting challenge the country has faced during the pandemic.

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The latest outbreak is concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area, where the Delta variant was responsible for 26.5% of the cases over the past week, jumping from 12.7% the week before, the KDCA said.

The greater Seoul area, including the capital city, surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the nearby port city of Incheon, started a two-week period of the government's highest Level 4 social distancing scheme on Monday.

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Under the guidelines, gatherings of more than two people are banned after 6 p.m. Entertainment venues such as nightclubs have been shut down, while religious services and classes are being held online. Restaurants are allowed to serve customers until 10 p.m.

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The popular nightlife district of Itaewon was nearly abandoned on Monday evening, with just a handful of pedestrians and visitors to the area's many bars and restaurants.

"Things were getting better a few weeks ago but now it's so different," said Martin Shin, who has operated a small bar in the Itaewon neighborhood for four years. "You can see now that there are no customers on the whole street."

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Shin said that he doesn't know how long he can continue operating his business if the pandemic doesn't ease up.

"If coronavirus doesn't get under control, I may have to close in six months," he said.

While South Korea's economy as a whole has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic well, with the government projecting GDP growth to exceed 4% in 2021 on the back of strong exports, smaller businesses have suffered.

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Nearly eight in 10 owners of small storefront businesses have seen their revenues drop this year, by an average of 21.8%, according to a survey released on Monday by the Korea Economic Research Institute.

On Monday, President Moon Jae-in said that the country was "facing the biggest crisis since the coronavirus entered South Korea."

He called the Level 4 distancing the "most intensive measure that can be taken without lockdown" and said that the government will maximize compensation for lost businesses under a special act and supplementary budget.

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"Although it is a task that requires daily inconveniences and economic damage, it is an emergency prescription to quickly stabilize the situation and prevent further damage and loss," he said.

"Once again, I can't help but feel very sorry for asking the people to be patient," Moon added. "Above all, my heart aches when I think of the small and medium-sized business owners who started to have hope and then have lost their way again."

The new restrictions extend to gyms, where patrons cannot use treadmills at a pace faster than 3.7 miles per hour, and music faster than 120 beats per minute is forbidden in group exercises such as aerobics.

The Korea Baseball Organization also decided to postpone all remaining games until the July 19 break for the Olympics after five positive cases were detected across two teams on Friday and Saturday.

Health officials have opened a number of outdoor COVID-19 testing sites at central locations, and traffic was busy on Monday and Tuesday as people waited for free tests in an effort to contain the spread.

South Korea is also looking to ramp up its inoculation program this month. Some 15.6 million people, or 30.4% of the population, have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, the KDCA reported. Over 5.9 million, or 11.6% of the population, are fully vaccinated.

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The rollout so far has primarily been concentrated among essential and healthcare workers and those above the age of 60.

Vaccinations have slowed considerably in recent weeks, however, as the country is awaiting shipments of new doses.

On Monday, appointments for those aged 55-59 were temporarily suspended for a week after all available appointments were booked on their first day of availability to the age group.

South Korea received 700,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Israel last week in a swap arrangement and is expecting to receive a total of 10 million doses from a variety of manufacturers this month.

Health officials have said that the vaccines will be funneled first to the greater Seoul area and will be used to inoculate those in close contact with the public, including street cleaners, retail workers and delivery people.

South Korea had already announced plans to begin vaccinating elementary, kindergarten and preschool teachers as well as high school seniors and people 50 and older this month. Officials are aiming for a 70% inoculation rate by November, which they claim will be enough for herd immunity.

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