Coronavirus: Seoul's full cafes, Apple store lines show mass testing success

People wearing protective masks walk through the Garosu-gil neighborhood of the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
People relax at a park in Seoul on April 12, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Cafes bustled with customers, parks teemed with sunbathers, and the first Apple store to reopen outside China had lines snaking out the door as many South Koreans - almost all wearing masks - emerged from months of self-isolation.

The scene in Seoul on a picture-perfect Saturday contrasted sharply with other nations where major cities look like ghost towns as governments lock down huge swaths of the population or impose strict restrictions on social gatherings.

Initially one of the hardest-hit with the second-highest number of cases globally, South Korea has managed to curb the spread without taking measures that were too severe. It didn't require businesses to close or restrict travel.

Despite government pleas to remain indoors with a warning of a flare-up, many Koreans ventured out on Saturday (April 18), saying they believe the worst of the pandemic is over.

"I came out for the first time in many days for a date with my girlfriend," said Mr Kim Ji-hoon, 28, who was coming out of a crowded restaurant along one of Seoul's more fashionable Garosu-gil road.

"It's not that I feel safer now but I do feel much more comfort in going out with the slower pace" of new infections, he said.

South Korea launched a massive testing and contact-tracing campaign that significantly curtailed the outbreak and kept many businesses and factories open. The number of new cases fell to 18 on Friday, the lowest since the beginning of a surge in late February when the daily tally reached more than 900.

While both the United States and South Korea confirmed their first virus cases around the same time in late January, the number of infections in the US has swelled to more than 700,000 while Korea "flattened the curve" last month and cases have slowed to just over 10,000.


At Han River park in Seoul's Banpo district, families - also in masks - were having picnics as children ran around, roller-bladed and flew kites. The carpark was full and cars were lining up to find a space. Banker Shin Bo-ram decided to venture out on Saturday with his wife and two children, who were "tired" of being indoors after schools were closed.

"I live right in front of this park but have been refraining from coming here," Mr Shin said. "And then we had this perfect weather today and saw a slower increase in the number of confirmed cases. I see a crowd here today and guess lots of people felt the same."

The public's newfound confidence in the virus's curb may have been partially bolstered by Wednesday's parliamentary elections - the first of its kind during the pandemic. It was conducted without significant hitches and so far has not been linked to any reported new infections.

President Moon Jae-in's ruling party won in a landslide, gaining a super majority in the National Assembly as a record number of voters went to the polls under strict virus safeguards, including requiring voters to wear masks and disposable plastic gloves while casting their ballots. Mr Moon's popularity had soared in recent weeks, thanks in part to South Korea gaining global attention for its handling of the virus outbreak.

"We did pretty well in prevention - that's finding the patients and taking quarantine measures - thanks to our prior experience with Mers outbreak," said Prof Kim Yoon, who specialises in health policy and management at Seoul National University's College of Medicine, referring to the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak that killed 38 Koreans.


Apple lauded South Korea as it announced the re-opening of its only store in the country.

"South Korea has shown great progress during the spread of Covid-19," the Cupertino, California-based technology giant said in a statement on Friday.

The Apple store in the posh Gangnam neighbourhood is the first location outside China to come back online since the iPhone maker shuttered all its stores in March to help curb the spread of the virus. It reopened China stores last month after virus cases there fell sharply.

Like many restaurants and stores in the country, Apple required customers to wear a mask, stand 2m apart while waiting in line and have their temperatures checked before entering.

Economic concerns are clearly still there, and the impact can already be seen as signs at some shuttered shops show they were up for rent, and business owners point to a lack of traffic and consumption.

"It's a psychological issue, i think," said Ms Ahn, a 30-something manager at a cosmetics shop in Garosu-gil, who said visitors to the store are just 10 per cent what it used to be before the outbreak. She declined to give her first name.

"People are still wearing masks and mind talking face-to-face with strangers, so even those who visit our store leave quickly after buying what they need."

A block away from the Apple store, at a boutique clothes shop, Mr Park Choon Kweon said he is seeing more people on the street these days, but many of them are still refraining from coming inside to shop.

"We're stuck in this coronavirus situation, not able to do anything to improve business," said Mr Park, who had to close his women's clothing shop next door last month, and is now helping manage his wife's store.


Fearing the potential for a "second wave" of infections, Korea's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention urged everyone to continue to follow social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines during the weekend.

"We cannot put our guard down yet, as there is still potential for high rate of infections," Vice-Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a televised briefing on Saturday morning. "We believe that we need to continue social distancing and not loosen it up."

In the meanwhile, Mr Kim said South Korea's government is drafting guidelines for a return to a "new normal", including modifying quarantine procedures and social distancing measures.

"Our society has been successfully delaying the spread of Covid-19 virus through social distancing," he said. "But that does not mean that the virus disappears completely or we are able to return to life we had led before the outbreak."

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