Coronavirus: South Korea delays school reopening as club cluster grows

Workers spraying disinfectant in Seoul's Itaewon neighbourhood. A 29-year-old man who went club-hopping with a friend in Itaewon on May 2 tested positive for Covid-19 four days later. The number of cases that has emerged from that cluster shot up to
Workers spray disinfectant in Seoul's Itaewon neighbourhood on May 11, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

South Korea has delayed the reopening of schools by a week, as fears grow over a possible second wave of infections stemming from a new cluster traced to five bars and clubs in Itaewon, a nightlife district in the capital Seoul.

The number of cases in the cluster shot up to 94 as of yesterday evening. These include eight in the military, four foreigners, a nurse, and an 84-year-old grandmother.

This brings the country's total tally to over 10,900 cases.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun yesterday stressed the need for rapid mass testing to contain the latest cluster, saying the authorities have tested fewer than half of the 5,517 people potentially exposed to the virus over a long weekend from April 30 to May 5.

Concern over the sudden spike in numbers has led more parents to sign a petition filed on the presidential Blue House website calling for a delay in the reopening of schools, which was slated to begin in phases tomorrow amid eased social distancing rules. The petition has drawn over 185,000 signatures.

The Education Ministry yesterday said the first batch comprising high school seniors will return to school on May 20 instead, while the last batch will resume face-to-face lessons on June 8. This is to "guarantee the safety of students", said Vice-Minister of Education Park Baeg-beom.

Meanwhile, health officials are struggling to track down those who visited the Itaewon clubs over the six-day-long weekend.

More than 3,000 of them remain uncontactable. Although customers are required to leave their contact details before entering a club, it appears that many had left fake numbers.

The first case to emerge is a 29-year-old man living in Yongin city, south-east of Seoul, who went club-hopping with a friend in Itaewon on May 2, and tested positive four days later. The clubs they visited are known to be gay bars.

As of noon yesterday, the cluster had grown to 86 cases - 63 clubbers and 23 of their friends and family members. Another eight cases were reported later in the day.

Seoul is the most affected, with 59 cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi province had 21 cases, and Incheon city, seven.

The 84-year-old woman who tested positive is from Incheon, and was infected after having a meal with her Seoul-based grandson who caught the virus in Itaewon.

The military is on high alert after eight staff were infected.

Four foreigners, including two Frenchmen and their American housemate, also tested positive.

Officials have expanded contact tracing efforts by tapping closed-circuit television footage and credit card data.

Businessman Gang Tae-hwan, 38, was shocked to get a call from the authorities last Friday asking if he had visited one of the clubs, after they found he had used his credit card at a nearby convenience store.

He told The Straits Times he is very worried about the situation and questioned why the government allowed clubs to reopen before the social distancing campaign ended on May 5.

"As the Korean proverb goes, it is too late to fix the barn after the cow runs away," he said.

Long weekend of fun turns out badly

A long weekend of fun has turned ugly for a 29-year-old South Korean man, now infamous as the "super spreader" at the centre of a new cluster of coronavirus infections linked to Seoul's clubbing district Itaewon.

The man lives in Yongin city, south-east of Seoul. He is nicknamed "Yongin 66" as he is the city's 66th case.

On Buddha's Birthday on April 30, he and three friends drove from Seoul to the touristy Nami Island. They spent the night at the nearby Vivaldi resort, and the next day visited an art gallery cum cafe in Gapyeong before returning to Seoul.

Yongin 66 then went home. Later that evening, he took the bus to Seoul and visited a pub in Yongsan district. After midnight on May 2, he met one of the friends he had travelled with - a 31-year-old male from Anyang city in Itaewon. They partied at five places, all known to be gay bars.

Yongin 66 took a taxi home.

He had a high fever and diarrhoea on the evening of May 3 and went to a hospital the next day. He tested positive last Wednesday. His friend from Anyang is also infected, although the other two who travelled with them to Nami Island tested negative.

A colleague of Yongin 66 at a software company has also tested positive.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: South Korea delays school reopening as club cluster grows. Subscribe