'Alone in the dark': South Korea's small businesses reel from new coronavirus clampdown

A man walks in an empty shopping district in Seoul on Nov 23, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A new round of social distancing rules took effect on Tuesday (Nov 24) in the South Korean capital of Seoul, dealing a blow to small business owners despite brighter hopes for economic recovery after earlier success in battling the coronavirus.

The measures range from closures of nightclubs and karaoke bars and curbs on eating in cafes and restaurants to fewer nighttime public transit services and limits on religious services, weddings and funerals for the next two weeks.

"I feel like I've been left alone in the dark," said Ms Jung Gong-dan, who runs a pub near the capital's Itaewon district, saying she has lost hope after a ban on dining in restaurants after 9pm.

The "emergency pause" in activity in the densely-populated capital and surrounding areas aims to damp a resurgence in outbreaks in offices, schools and small gatherings that have combined to drive a third wave of infections.

Asia's fourth-largest economy returned to growth in the third quarter, reversing its sharpest contraction in more than a decade, as the government pushed through stimulus measures, and major trading partners eased virus curbs.

The benchmark KOSPI stock index hit its all-time high on Tuesday, for a dramatic gain of 83 per cent from its 2020 low soon after the pandemic hit in late March, as authorities cut interest rates and poured money into the financial system.

But the revival of financial asset prices has shown little spillover into the real economy, as owners of small businesses and street shops shut down in the face of the new restrictions.

"I'm planning to launch a takeout wine sale with discounts, which is the only way to head off a cash crunch, given revenue drops throughout the year," said a wine bar owner, who runs two stores in downtown Seoul.

The owner, who asked to be identified only by her surname, Kim, said she had bought supplies worth 10 million won (S$12,094) in expectation of a surge in year-end reservations.

The usual bustling activity and long queues in many of Seoul's shopping streets and nightlife areas was missing on Monday evening.

Without government help, said Ms Jung, the pub owner, it would almost be easier to shut permanently than try to stay open under the new curbs, after large losses incurred in the year's earlier outbreaks.

"I hope the government will provide practical measures to help us, because constantly suspending night operations virtually means no business," she added.

The government has yet to propose a new round of stimulus measures, but on Tuesday the main opposition party called for billions of dollars to be diverted from next year's budget proposal as subsidies for those hit by the pandemic.

President Moon Jae-in apologised on Tuesday (Nov 24) for having to restrengthen distancing measures, but said "there is no other path" to sever infection links and prevent greater hardship.

Health authorities have warned the current wave of infections might be harder to limit than before, as most occurred in the wider general community around Seoul.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 349 cases, as the daily tally ticked up again after a slight drop reflecting fewer weekend tests.

Total infections stand at 31,353, with 510 deaths.

Young people voiced frustration and disappointment at the latest rules, but many supported stronger action.

"It is stifling, and so sad that we have to take risks just going outside and meeting someone, but it's the right thing to do and hopefully we'll be able to go back to normal soon," said university student Shin Jong-hyun, 29.

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