S. Korea likely to decide within this week over upgrade to Level 3 social distancing

Posted on : 2020-08-24 17:46 KST Modified on : 2020-08-24 17:58 KST
Upgrade would result in de facto lockdown with painful economic impact
People line up for testing at a screening center in Seoul’s Seongbuk District on Aug. 23. (Yonhap News)
People line up for testing at a screening center in Seoul’s Seongbuk District on Aug. 23. (Yonhap News)

The South Korean government appears likely to make a decision toward the end of this week over whether to upgrade the nationwide social distancing regime to Level 3. Level 2 social distancing was first introduced in the Seoul Capital Area (SCA) on Aug. 19 before being expanded nationally as of Aug. 23. Predicting that the effects of Level 2 will begin to manifest this weekend, the government has opted not to immediately upgrade to Level 3 as many infectious disease experts have called for -- but to also begin preparing detailed guidelines for a Level 3 scenario. Level 3 measures would amount to a lockdown, with gatherings of 10 or more people prohibited.

On Aug. 23, government officials gave “one week” as their deadline for making a decision on whether to upgrade to Level 3. In a regular briefing that day, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) Director Jung Eun-kyeong said, “We believe it will take at least a week or so before the effects of applying Level 2 [distancing] become apparent.”

“There are experts who are saying we should proceed to Level 3 right away, but the public and society as a whole will need some time to prepare for Level 3,” she added.

Yoon Tae-ho, chief of the general disease prevention team at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters (CDMHQ) and bureau chief of health policy in the Health Ministry, said, “If the current spread does not subside this week, that will mean a very serious situation where disease control authorities will have no choice but to consider an upgrade to Level 3.”

“This week is going to be the major crossroads,” he predicted.

In response to the central government’s hesitance to upgrade disease control measures, the Seoul Metropolitan Government moved to take preemptive measures. As of 12 am on Aug. 24, all Seoul residents are required to wear masks at all times except when actively eating, both indoors as well as outdoors when large numbers of people are present. Gyeonggi Province and the city of Busan had already made masks mandatory beforehand. Seoul also plans to issue a two-week shutdown order for any multi-user establishment where even a single violation of disease prevention measures, such as visitor logs and masks, are discovered. To date, such establishments had merely been instructed to take corrective action. The measure applies to a total of 58,353 establishments, including after-school academies with fewer than 300 people, religious facilities, indoor wedding halls, cinemas, public baths, and funeral homes.

While the government adopted a “wait and see” attitude toward this week, related ministries began work on developing detailed guidelines for a potential Level 3 upgrade. Various disease control indicators suggest such an upgrade is imminent. The average number of daily cases stood at 162.1 domestically for the two-week period from Aug. 9 to 22 -- 13 times higher than the 12 recorded for the preceding two weeks. This meets one of the criteria for a Level 3 upgrade, namely a daily average of 100-200 new cases. For the week from Aug. 16 to 22 in particular, the daily average of cases was 268.4.

“If we do go to Level 3, we’re considering having over 50% of all public sector employees work from home and recommending similar levels for private businesses,” said Son Young-rae, who heads the CDMHQ strategy and planning team.

Apply Level 3 to Greater Seoul or all of S. Korea?

Another question for the government is whether to apply Level 3 to the SCA exclusively or to the whole country. Yoon Tae-ho said, “Level 3 means stopping all daily activities, which will inevitably have a devastating and painful impact on all economic activity.”

“Since that measure is on par with a lockdown and cannot be sustained for a long time, we’re preparing for something that will allow us to achieve the effect of an upgrade over a short period of time,” he explained. An upgrade to Level 3 would prohibit all gatherings of 10 or more people and suspend all in-person classes at schools and sporting events. Restaurants and essential industry facilities would be allowed to operate only until 9 pm. The matter is currently scheduled for discussion on Aug. 25 by an “everyday disease prevention committee” comprising experts from the medical and economic fields, among others.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education held a teleconference of metropolitan and provincial office of education deputy superintendents nationwide on Aug. 22, where it was decided that Level 2 guidelines would be established for each grade as of Aug. 26.

By Hwang Ye-rang and Suh Hye-mi, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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