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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 12)

All News 06:59 May 12, 2020

No return to nightmare
Bars, clubs should face tougher measures

Fears of a mass COVID-19 infection have again gripped South Korea after the number of cases linked to certain bars and clubs in Seoul rose to 94 Monday. The country could suffer a setback in its globally-recognized efforts to contain the coronavirus if it fails to bring the new cases under control.

The situation was discovered after a man in his 20s tested positive for the virus May 6 after visiting bars and clubs in the capital's popular nightlife district of Itaewon. More than 5,500 people visited the same entertainment facilities between April 24 and May 6. The health authorities have so far contacted about 2,400 of them to test them for the virus. But they cannot identify 3,100 others, raising worries about a second wave of infections.

Such worries have already turned into a reality. The virus suddenly spread from Itaewon to other parts of the country, including the southeastern port city of Busan and the resort island of Jeju. This has caused the Moon Jae-in administration to postpone the reopening of schools for high school seniors again by one week to May 20. It also dims the prospects for the phased resumption of school operations for all students.

Itaewon seems to have emerged as the nation's second epicenter for COVID-19 after the southeastern city of Daegu, where the first wave of mass infections took place among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in February. In this regard, the Itaewon incident is a reminder of the coronavirus nightmare that started in Daegu. We hope that the authorities will do their best to bring the spread of the virus under control just as they did for the Shincheonji followers. It is necessary to concentrate on testing, tracing and treating to win the fight against the pandemic.

The new round of infections appears to be no less challenging than the Daegu incident because patrons of the related bars and clubs in Itaewon are reluctant to come forward for testing. Also, they engage in different professions. Among them are soldiers, call center employees and skincare specialists. This raises the possibility of them spreading the virus to their co-workers and clients, not to mention their family members and neighbors.

The Itaewon-related cases occurred after the authorities began to ease strict social distancing guidelines April 20. Since then, the government has allowed four major "crowding" facilities, including entertainment, religion and cram schools, to resume operations, though in a limited manner. The cases also come after the government adopted an "everyday life disease control" program last Wednesday to enable people to take a step closer to normal life. These factors might have sent the wrong signal not only to the operators of those facilities, but also to the public that they are now safe from the virus.

The authorities must take all possible means to prevent the resurgence of COVID-19. If necessary, they will have to return to stringent social distancing guidelines. It is urgent to strengthen disinfection and quarantine rules for bars, clubs and other entertainment facilities to avoid infection clusters. Most of all, complacency is the greatest enemy in the battle against the virus. This is not the time to let our guard down.

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