Coronavirus South Korea

S. Korea implements 5-tier social distancing system

Revised rules aim to cut pandemic's impact on daily lives, business activities

South Korea's new system replaces its three-tier one, which has been in effect since the end of June. The change comes as public concern is rising about the growing number of sporadic clusters of infections nationwide.
South Korea's new system replaces its three-tier one, which has been in effect since the end of June. The change comes as public concern is rising about the growing number of sporadic clusters of infections nationwide.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A new five-tier social distancing policy in South Korea means Singaporean Deborah Cheok will be able to watch Disney film Mulan in the cinema with her Korean husband without an empty seat between them as mandated previously.

But she is hesitant to do so, wary of going to public places with poor ventilation, such as movie halls, while Covid-19 is still spreading.

South Korea has seen around 100 new cases a day since social distancing rules were eased to the lowest Level 1 from Oct 12.

Yesterday, 145 cases were reported, bringing the total to 27,195. The death toll stood at 476.

A stricter and more specific social distancing system that will go into effect today aims to "improve effectiveness and adherence to anti-virus rules", Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said when he announced the measure last Sunday.

It replaces the three-tier system which has been in effect since the end of June. The new measure comprises five levels: 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3.

The country will also be divided into seven zones to give the local authorities more control over Covid-19 within their areas. This includes the Seoul capital area (Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi province), Chungcheong, Honam, North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang, Gangwon and Jeju island.

The revised rules are also aimed at minimising the pandemic's impact on daily lives and business activities, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said yesterday.

The change comes as concern is rising about the growing number of sporadic clusters of infections.

In Seoul alone, 42 cases were traced to a sauna, 11 to a brokerage house, and seven to the funeral of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee at Samsung Medical Centre last week.

A rehabilitation facility in Gwangju in Gyeonggi saw 106 cases, and a call centre in Cheonan in South Chungcheong saw at least 21.

The health authorities admitted the infection was "spreading faster than contact tracing", and that surveillance and containment had become increasingly challenging.

They urged against socialising and gathering indoors, adding that it was crucial to comply with preventive measures.

  • What the five tiers mean

  • LEVEL 1 (Everyday quarantine - fewer than 100 daily new cases for a week in capital area, 10 for Gangwon and Jeju, and 30 for the rest)

     • Basic preventive measures, like wearing a mask, apply

     • High-risk areas like clubs and bars must limit the number of people to one per 4 sq m

     • Restaurants and cafes must keep tables 1m apart or install partitions

     • Cinemas allowed to fill all seats

     • Companies to allow employees to work from home

     • Schools to run on two-thirds of capacity, with online learning

    LEVEL 1.5 (Regional outbreak - more than 100 daily new cases nationally)

     • Mask-wearing extended to outdoor sports stadiums

     • Schools to continue two-thirds capacity policy

     • Religious events to fill only 30 per cent of seating; meals and small group meetings at such events banned

    LEVEL 2 (Regional outbreak - more than 300 daily new cases nationally)

     • Meetings and events with more than 100 people banned

     • Restaurants to close after 9pm; delivery and takeout allowed after that. Cafes run on delivery and takeout only

     • Karaoke rooms to close after 9pm

     • Companies to further increase ratio of staff working from home

     • Schools to run on one-third capacity

    LEVEL 2.5 (National outbreak - 400 to 500 daily new cases)

     • Meetings and events with more than 50 people banned

     • Karaoke rooms to close

     • Companies to allow at least one third of staff to work from home

     • Schools to continue running on one-third capacity

     • Religious activities to go online

    LEVEL 3 (National outbreak - 800 to more than 1,000 daily new cases)

     • Meetings and events with more than 10 people banned

     • Cinemas, restaurants, cafes, hair salons, bathhouses to close

     • All employees, except those in essential services, to work from home

     • Schools to go online

     • Religious activities to remain online

The five-tier social distancing system has drawn some criticism.

Office worker Lee So-ra, 26, thinks it is aimed only at "reducing dissatisfaction with the government's control of the outbreak by accepting some people's complaints". She told The Straits Times: "I don't think it will be more effective in preventing the spread of the virus."

Job seeker Lee Hyun-a, 25, thinks there is "no big difference" between the new and old systems.

"It's just different frames and can cause confusion," she said. "We have excellent quarantine measures but I am also worried we can lose control. The economy is important, but the crackdown on social distancing must be strengthened to protect public safety."

As for Ms Cheok, life will remain the same whatever the rules.

"Regardless of how many tiers they have for social distancing, we will still avoid public places with poor ventilation like cinemas, wear a mask everywhere we go, and drive rather than take public transport," said the housewife, 29.

"Now that we are entering winter, I'm scared to catch even a normal flu, not to mention Covid-19."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korea implements 5-tier social distancing system'. Print Edition | Subscribe