COVID-19 is spreading quickly. Although 264 cases were reported on Monday, a decrease from the previous day, daily confirmed cases have been increasing in triple digits for 11 consecutive days, sounding the alarm for healthcare and disease control systems. Unlike previous cluster infections such as with Shincheonji or at a club in Itaewon, multiple clusters are being reported at the same time, which prompted 10 infectious disease academic organizations to publish a statement on Monday calling for social distancing to be upgraded to Stage 3. Even President Moon Jae-in said an upgrade to Stage 3 would be inevitable if the spread of the disease continues.
The government should be ready to make the change anytime and fight against the virus in cooperation with the private sector. However, when asked about concrete action plans, it keeps saying that it is discussing various measures. In Stage 3, every aspect of daily lives will be brought to a halt except for essential social and economic activities, but it is still unclear what falls under the category. Similarly, the government said people will be encouraged to work from home unless they are essential workers in Stage 3 but it has not yet provided a clear definition of “essential workers.” All it said was that there should be no more than 50 percent of employees working in the office.
If social distancing rules are upgraded to Stage 3, small businesses will take the brunt. Cram schools, arcades, movie theaters and cafes were listed as examples of “mid-risk facilities” which will be forced to shut down. However, by saying that the list is subject to change, the government is causing confusion and making it more difficult for businesses to predict and plan for the immediate future. It will not compensate lost sales from the shutdown either. This explains why there is so much controversy around it. Cafes will have to close while restaurants and shopping malls remain open. Live cafes that are registered as restaurants will still be open while indoor cafes will be shut down.
If the government is worried that Stage 2 is not strict enough and Stage 3 can cause too much damage to the economy, it is worth considering adding one more stage between the two. Instead of completely shutting down cafes and other stores, it can introduce a limit on customer numbers.
Stage 3 has never been implemented in South Korea as there were only two stages this Spring when the country experienced the first wave. The guidelines were upgraded to introduce three stages on June 28. It has been two months, but the government has not yet come up with detailed measures. Travelling abroad is practically banned, but students are asked every morning if they were on overseas holidays. The government should remain alert and tighten measures. Otherwise, it will not be able to gain public and win the long fight against COVID-19.