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(LEAD) Coffee shops, bars, internet cafes join protest against virus restrictions

All News 15:21 January 06, 2021

(ATTN: UPDATES with health ministry official's remarks, background in last 5 paras; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- Coffee shops, bars and internet cafes have joined a growing list of businesses protesting the government's coronavirus restrictions, with shop owners lighting signboards, staging demonstrations and petitioning the Constitutional Court.

The shop owners say the restrictions are applied unfairly, allowing some businesses to reopen while shuttering others, and without any promise of proper compensation for their losses.

A cafe in eastern Seoul is empty on Jan. 5, 2021, with government restrictions banning customers from eating on-site due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Yonhap)
A member of a national cafe owners' association protests the government's coronavirus-related business restrictions as part of a relay demonstration outside the National Assembly in Seoul on Jan. 6, 2021. (Yonhap)

The complaints have grown since the government extended Level 2.5 social distancing measures in the capital area until Jan. 17, but with exceptions for certain facilities, including small-sized hagwon (private academies) and ballet and taekwondo schools, which can now hold classes of up to nine children at a time.

"After seeing how the government eased restrictions for taekwondo (schools) in response to their protests, I decided that cafe owners should have someone to represent them, too," said Ko Jang-soo, who recently founded an online group for coffee shop owners nationwide.

The group counted more than 1,800 members within three days of its launch. Soon, they were sending petitions to the health ministry and planning to hold one-person demonstrations outside the National Assembly in Seoul and the government complex in Sejong.

The current social distancing level allows coffee shops to offer only takeout and delivery. Restaurants, however, are allowed to offer dining in until 9 p.m.

On Tuesday, several bar owners and internet cafe owners joined hands with an influential civic group, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, to file a petition against the government at the Constitutional Court.

In the petition, they claimed that the restrictions violated small business owners' property rights and rights to equality and demanded the government and National Assembly come up with measures to properly compensate them for their losses.

The civic group also warned of additional legal action, including administrative suits, in consultation with gym owners and other businesses.

Also Tuesday, around 700 bars and nightclubs in Gwangju, 329 kilometers south of Seoul, said they would open their doors and light their signboards, without receiving customers, as a form of protest.

The government acknowledged the complaints, saying adjustments will need to be made once the current social distancing measures produce the desired effect.

"We are sorry to the small business owners who are suffering greatly due to the business restrictions," Son Young-rae, a health ministry spokesman, told reporters Tuesday.

The comment came as some 300 gym operators in the capital area resumed business in defiance of the restrictions this week, according to a gym owners' association.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, told reporters Wednesday that the government will move quickly to review the ongoing assembly ban imposed on gyms.

"We will provide guidance following consultations with relevant ministries over areas that need to be fixed or issues of fairness," he said.

The plight of small businesses drew further attention after a 50-something gym owner in Daegu, 302 kilometers southeast of Seoul, was found dead in an apparent suicide on New Year's Day.

South Korea has reported around 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day since mid-December, leading to stricter social distancing guidelines, including a ban on private gatherings of five or more people.

Police officers visit a gym in Pocheon, 46 kilometers northeast of Seoul, on Jan. 4, 2021, after the business reopened in defiance of the government's coronavirus restrictions. (Yonhap)


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