At 10pm this past Thursday night, the streets of Seoul’s popular shopping and dining district Myeongdong were completely empty.
A few scattered pedestrians walked along the roads, where there were no cars. The LED video boards on the sides of buildings were still playing ads. A robotic clam over the entryway to a seafood restaurant still opened and closed its shell. But the windows of every restaurant and bar were dark black, devoid of the usual glow emanating from activity in this very international of districts. Myeongdong with everything closed after 9pm is a strange sight.
It was strange for me, having spent the past two weeks away from Seoul, but the scenes of Seoul’s nightlife districts going to bed early have been commonplace since the Seoul Capital Region implemented social distancing level 2.5 on August 28 in an effort to get its second wave under control.
Now, with new coronavirus cases under 200 for the past two weeks, Seoul is relaxing social distancing to level 2, and all-night revelry in the bars and restaurants will be allowed to resume.
These are some of changes that will take place beginning Monday, September 14: Buses will resume normal service after 9 pm and franchised cafes, which were limited to takeout, will be allowed to have customers drink coffee inside. In addition, facilities alongside the Han River can reopen and Hagwons (private training schools) and study cafes will be able to open to ordinary business. However, dining establishments still have to keep records of all customers.
Political rallies of ten or more people are still banned. That means that more than a dozen protests planned by mostly conservative groups for National Foundation Day October 3 were denied permits. Whether they will stand down remains to be seen. On August 15, a large-scale conservative protest was outlawed, but a few thousand protesters descended on Gwanghwamun Square anyway. Not too long afterward, over 500 coronavirus cases were traced to attendees.
The restrictions seemed to have their intended effect, as new cases decreased from a high of 441 cases August 27 to between 119 and 176 the second week of September. The rate of untraceable infections also decreased from 45% to 20%. The number of new cases is still not close to the low of twenty-eight cases recorded on August 10. Moreover, the last time the case count was below 100 was on August 14.
But the government says it will maintain vigilance monitoring and control policies, with particular emphasis on the end of September and beginning of October, when chuseok, Korea’s autumn harvest festival, takes place. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called Chuseok Korea’s “biggest challenge” for pandemic control and said that special measures would be rolled out.
A few points are evident from Korea’s overall success at combating coronavirus. First, Korea implements targeted policies along a spectrum. While the conversation in the United States often seems to be fixed around a false dichotomy between “lockdown” or “open thing up,” Korea shows that there are a variety of control mechanisms to choose from without shutting everything down completely.
For example, Florida and California and many other American states have closed bars entirely. During the whole three weeks of Seoul’s heightened social distancing measures, bars and restaurants remained opened most of the day; they just had to comply with a 9 pm curfew and take the names and contact information of customers. In fact, the whole idea of raising the level of restrictions from 2 to 2.5, rather than 3, shows a level of flexibility.
Some of the practices in place in America make no sense. Fans were present in Kansas City for the NFL’s opening game, yet hairdressers are still not allowed to operate in California. In Korea, there have been no fans at baseball games for a month, but much more of the everyday economy is open than in America. In no circumstance is it safer (nor more socially important) to attend a football game than to get one’s haircut. These contradictions are due largely to the fact that America’s social distancing policies are almost entirely implemented at a state level, with little national guidance.
It’s also interesting that Korea’s restrictions on mass assemblies apply equally to political events and protests as they do to entertainment events. A virus, after all, makes no distinction. In comparison, the United States has made no effort to limit mass protests or presidential campaign rallies that have taken place over the past few months.
Second, it is also noteworthy that the Korean public is more attuned to the latest developments of coronavirus here and more likely to listen to the government’s warnings than the American public. Many Seoul residents stayed home during the period in which level 2.5 was in effect, even though there was no formal rules calling for people to stay home. Places of business and dining were still open, but many people chose to stay home either out of concern for their own health or out of a spirit of public consciousness.
Korea’s experience shows the importance both of formal policies and voluntary choices by the public. Both go hand in hand. Korea’s government does have a more consistent message coming from both elected officials and public health experts, while the messages are often at odds in the United States. Unified messaging could contribute to the Korean public’s level of trust in the government’s pandemic control policies. The effectiveness of Seoul’s policies can be seen in the numbers, and the reopening after a decline in spread shows the public there is something to look forward to if they abide by social distancing.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at the National Interest, Chinese-English translator, and lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong. He has been published in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, Silkwinds magazine, and Areo Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.