(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 3-5, 12-13, 20-22, 25-28; ADDS photos)
SEOUL, Feb. 1 (Yonhap) -- Many local governments in South Korea are gearing up to resume the provision of universal disaster relief funds to their residents stricken by the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.
Gyeonggi Province, the nation's most populous province with about 14 million residents, and Ulsan, a southeastern metropolitan city, began the process of delivering their emergency COVID-19 relief handouts Monday, while a number of other provinces, cities and counties nationwide are moving to follow suit.
Gyeonggi and Ulsan are giving out 100,000 won (approximately $90) per person or household, while Yeosu, a southwestern city, is set to pay out 250,000 won per person to all citizens.
Instead of the universal relief scheme, some local governments are pushing to selectively offer relief funds to the self-employed and small businesses hit hard by the extended social distancing rules.
Whoever the recipients are, most of the local governments are speeding up their cash distribution procedures to help promote consumption ahead of next week's Lunar New Year holiday.
The independent moves by many local governments come as the central government and the ruling Democratic Party have been discussing a new round of pandemic relief funds to all households, as well as custom-made financial support for the self-employed and small businesses.
Since May last year, the government has distributed more than 31 trillion won (US$27.8 billion) through three rounds of pandemic relief funds. The fourth round, now under discussion, may comprise universal relief handouts to all households and additional assistance for small business owners.
This week, the provincial government of Gyeonggi, which surrounds Seoul, started providing its own second round of coronavirus relief of 100,000 won per person to all 13.99 million residents, including 580,000 foreign nationals.
It began receiving applications and plans to make payments online from Monday to March 14. In-person applications and payments will take place from March 1 to April 30.
The payment will be made with credit cards or provincial prepaid cards and the money should be used in the province within three months of delivery.
The province had already handed out the same amount of relief from April to August last year, becoming the first local government in the nation to do so.
"Retail sales rebounded at traditional markets and neighborhood commercial districts after the payment of the province's first disaster relief funds last year," said Lee Chung-hwan, who leads an association of retail merchants in Gyeonggi.
"It is fortunate that the second round of relief assistance began prior to the Lunar New Year holiday. It is again expected to revitalize the regional economy," he said.
Ulsan, about 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul, began to pay 48.6 billion won in emergency pandemic relief funds to all households on Monday.
Each of the 476,893 households in Ulsan will be eligible to receive 100,000 won by the end of April after submitting applications to respective community service centers.
Ulsan's handout, set at 100,000 won per household regardless of its size, will be paid in the form of prepaid cards and can be used at almost all retailers within the city, except for department and large discount stores, online shopping sites and entertainment and gambling establishments.
In the southwestern province of South Jeolla, 11 out of its 22 low-level local governments, including Yeosu, Naju, Gurye and Jangseong, have decided to provide emergency pandemic relief to all residents.
The county government of Gurye, 420 km south of Seoul, is to spend 2.64 billion won to pay 100,000 won in regional gift cards to all 25,573 residents this month.
The city of Yeosu plans to pay 250,000 won in prepaid cards to each of its 285,000 citizens, including members of multicultural families, while 45,000 residents in Jangseong County will be given 100,000 won per person.
Notably, Yeosu is planning to provide extra financial support to pandemic-hit small merchants in the city.
"I feel relieved as my family of four can receive 1 million won in relief assistance ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. It is not a large sum compared to the income loss suffered due to the coronavirus but may help my family celebrate the upcoming holiday," said Kim Jeong-hun, a 40-year-old resident in Yeosu.
Mokpo's government has decided to give out 100,000 won to each of its 225,000 citizens and additionally pay 500,000 won to 550 religious facilities and 230 chartered bus drivers, who were excluded from the previous relief packages.
The city of Gwangyang is considering paying 200,000 won in relief money to all residents, while Suncheon, Yeongam and Goheung plan to provide 100,000 won per person to all residents.
The provincial government of Gangwon, east of Seoul, has reportedly begun discussing the provision of universal pandemic relief assistance to all 600,000 households before April.
In the southeastern province of South Gyeongsang, all residents in Goseong and Changnyeong counties will soon be paid 100,000 won per person.
The government of Incheon, 40 km west of Seoul, plans to pay between 1 million won and 1.5 million won to small merchants hurt by the coronavirus-related business restrictions and closures.
In Gyeonggi Province, the city of Pocheon will hand out 200,000 won per person and additional funds for small merchants, while the city of Seongnam is to offer 500,000 won to 1 million won to each small business hit hard by COVID-19.
Four other Gyeonggi cities -- Gwangmyeong, Siheung, Uijeongbu and Yangju -- are also set to provide similar relief funds ranging from 300,000 won to 1 million won to their coronavirus-hit small merchants.
Commentators and some officials have called on the central government to fine-tune the different emergency relief policies by local governments, raising concern that the different amount of handouts apparently tied to individual local governments' financial conditions may sow the seeds of regional conflict.
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