By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, Aug. 19 (Yonhap) -- It is no secret that South Koreans love drinking coffee at cafes. Sitting with an iced latte in an air-conditioned cafe can be luxuriously comfortable.
But when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, the country's coffee craze could be a hurdle, as coffee shops are emerging as a hotbed of cluster infections.
South Korea is bracing itself for another nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 after more than 1,200 virus cases were reported over the past six days.
Infection clusters have been reported at various facilities, from churches to coffee shops, in the capital Seoul area.
So far, 55 cases have been connected to a Starbucks store in Paju, north of Seoul. Earlier this month, health authorities identified more than 15 cases tied to a Hollys Coffee store in Gangnam Ward, southern Seoul.
Exposure to COVID-19 in a closed environment poses the risk of contracting the disease, and air-conditioning may raise the risk further as people breathe in a closed environment.
For the outbreak at a Starbucks store in Paju, health authorities suspect that air-conditioning may have been a potential route of virus transmission. According to Paju officials, a virus patient sat near an air conditioner on the second floor of the store and may have infected others via aerosol transmission.
"Many of the visitors didn't wear masks, and there seems to be no proper air ventilation at the store even though air conditioners were in operation due to humid weather," Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said earlier this week referring to the Starbucks outbreak.
"Even if infections did not occur via aerosol transmission, droplet transmission is also possible in a confined space, and the virus could have spread via hand contact," she said.
Following the new flare-up of virus cases, the government on Tuesday vowed to fully enforce Level 2 social distancing measures that include the closure of facilities prone to virus risks, such as clubs, internet cafes and buffet restaurants.
Coffee shops and restaurants, however, are not included on the list of high-risk facilities.
"People need to be cautious when using cafes," said Choi Won-suk, a professor of the Infectious Disease Division at Korea University Ansan Hospital. "They must follow personal hygiene guidelines, such as wearing masks and washing their hands."
For South Koreans, drinking coffee has become a daily habit, with coffee shops located on nearly every street corner.
According to a 2018 report from Hyundai Research Institute, South Koreans drink a total of 353 cups of coffee per person on average a year, nearly three times more than the global average of 132 cups of coffee.
As of end-2019, there were more than 93,000 coffee shops in the country, according to data from the Small Enterprise and Market Service, a unit under the Ministry of SMEs and Startups. Of them, more than 42,600 were in the greater Seoul area.
Experts said virus outbreaks at coffee shops can happen anytime since many of them use a glass wall interior design, which makes air ventilation difficult, and accommodate people in a confined space.
In particular, with the scorching heat and humid weather gripping the country these days, many people visit cafes with air-conditioning.
Earlier this month, health authorities released virus prevention guidelines for coffee shops, which basically advise people to wear masks at all times except when they drink coffee.
But coffee shop owners said such measures do not reflect what is really happening inside stores.
"At cafes, it is difficult to draw a line between people drinking coffee and having conversations," said a cafe owner in Suwon, south of Seoul. "It is hard to tell whether this moment is breaching virus prevention guidelines."
In an effort to join the virus fight, major coffee franchises have reduced tables and seats at their stores, widening the distance between customers.
However, such measures are burdensome for small cafe owners, as it could reduce their sales.
"Major cafes may not have a big problem if they reduce seats, but not for small-sized cafes," said Kang Sung-jin, an economics professor at Korea University. "If the government plans to enforce social distancing measures for cafes, it should also consider how it can compensate sales loss for cafes."
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