Just three days after the government of South Korea started relaxing social-distancing measures, the mayor of Seoul ordered the shutdown of more than 2,100 bars and other nightclubs Saturday (May 9) due to a rash of new coronavirus cases.
More than 50 cases have been linked to a 29-year-old man who visited five clubs and bars in a popular Seoul neighborhood last weekend, reported the Wall Street Journal. He tested positive on Wednesday—the same day the government said it was fine to resume normal life.
South Korea had been reporting a declining number of new cases for weeks. The nation has been a model to other countries for dealing with the pandemic, but the new cases highlight the challenges—for any society—of returning to normalcy and reopening the economy.
One of the hardest-hit countries early on, South Korea swiftly responded to the outbreak, leveraging its hard-won experience with the deadly MERS outbreak five years ago. By mid-February, the government rolled out mass testing along with an aggressive contact-tracing program. Unlike other nations that have suffered more, including Italy and the US, South Korea has been able to rein in the outbreak without resorting to lockdowns. With 256 deaths so far and 10,874 cases, its mortality rate is 2.4%, whereas the world’s fatality rate overall is 6.86%.
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On Saturday, Seoul mayor Park Won-soon issued an order banning large crowds at clubs, bars, and other entertainment venues, lasting at least a month, the Journal reported. He said violators will be subjected to “severe punishment,” including fines. The club outbreak may also push back the reopening of in-person instruction in schools, which was slated to begin next week, the Associated Press reported.
In a speech Sunday (May 10), South Korean president Moon Jae-in said that the cases shows how “even during the stabilization phase, similar situations can arise again anytime, anywhere in an enclosed, crowded space.”
While Moon told people not to lower their “guard regarding epidemic prevention,” he said “there’s no reason to stand still out of fear” and that South Korea has “the right quarantine and medical systems combined with experience to respond quickly to any unexpected infection clusters that might occur.”
Germany, another country admired for its Covid-19 response, also reported rising coronavirus cases this weekend, just days after it, too, loosened social-distancing restrictions.