As the number of new daily COVID-19 patients in South Korea rose close to 200 on Friday, the easing of social distancing level 2.5 in Seoul and the nearby region has become uncertain. The disease prevention authorities said they will decide this weekend whether or not to extend the current 2.5 level of social distancing guidelines that have been in place for two weeks while the spread of the virus continues.
According to the guidelines, social distancing level 2 is applied when the daily average new cases for the past two weeks are between 50 and 100, and level 3 is applied when the figure is between 100 to 200. There hasn’t been enough reduction in Seoul and the nearby region to relax the current level of 2.5. As the share of the patients whose infection routes are unknown stands at 22.9 percent as of Thursday, which is four times higher than the authorities’ target of five percent, there may be unexpected risks from “silent infections.” University hospitals, including Severance Hospital and Kangwon National University Hospital, also experienced small-scale mass infections.
Meanwhile, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared a prematurely optimistic outlook saying that the easing of social distancing level 2.5 is not far, allowing people who are already worn out of the prolonged COVID-19 crisis to slack. As the authorities regulate the crowded areas near the Han River, people started to have drinking parties outside the regulated areas, creating the balloon effect in which problems are moved in locations, not solved.
However, the easing of level 2.5 should be considered because of the concerns about the economy. As the COVID-19 crisis has continued for eight months, small business owners are pushed to limit. In particular, the owners of high-risk businesses whose operation has been suspended are even at a point to think there is not much difference between starving to death and dying from COVID-19.
However, the premature easing of social distancing guidelines will send out a wrong message, relaxing the level of caution in society. As the new level of 2.5, which did not exist according to the original guidelines, was created, an upgraded version of level 2.5 with more flexibility can be adopted by tightening regulations on lax behavior, such as drinking near the Han River, while relaxing the suspension of small business operation as it is people’s livelihood. In addition, health-related facilities, such as fitness centers with registered members, should be allowed to be open with the prerequisite of strict management in order to enable citizens to take care of their health and stress. Businesses may be allowed to be open by introducing stricter disease control measures, such as better ventilation, restriction on the number of people allowed per unit area, and the mandatory use of masks, while prosecuting those who violate the regulations.
The battle against COVID-19 will continue for a long time. Controlling the spread of the disease and protecting people’s livelihoods should be both pursued with appropriate flexibility for changing situations. People are already worried about what to do for the Chuseok holiday, which is just about two weeks from now. The authorities should develop recommended guidelines for traveling during the holiday as soon as possible.