SEOUL, Nov. 1 (Reuters) – New rules aimed at moving South Koreans toward “living with COVID-19” took effect Monday, with the easing of a series of restrictions and the introduction of vaccine passports at high-risk locations such as gyms, saunas and bars.
The shift in focus comes because more than 75% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. The first phase of the revised rules will last a month, with plans to lift all restrictions in February.
“The road back to everyday life, which we are taking the first step on today, is a path we have never traveled before,” said Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol at a COVID-19 meeting within the agency.
He asked people to continue wearing masks, regularly ventilate rooms and get tested if symptoms develop, noting that there are still concerns about a possible flare-up of new cases due to risk factors such as unvaccinated people, future declines in immunity among the vaccinated, and year-end meetings.
Although South Korea has never been shut down, it has been battling a fourth wave of infections since July, when the government imposed stricter restrictions on gatherings and social distancing.
Among a slew of changes, curfews on restaurants and cafes have been lifted, outdoor sporting events are allowed to host spectators at 50% capacity, and the government has dropped a recommendation that at least 30% of company employees work from home.
Up to 100 people can attend musicals or concerts regardless of vaccination status, while gyms no longer have to restrict treadmill speeds, play music with high beats per minute during group exercise or close showers.
High-risk locations such as bars and nightclubs, indoor gyms, saunas and karaoke bars require proof of visitor vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours.
“I’m a little worried, but I think this is a way to get back to normal,” Yoo Byeong-gum said at a Seoul gym.
Some customers struggled to get the vaccine pass because they were unable to get all the necessary doses due to side effects, said gym owner Kang Hyun-gu.
At one of the Colatec nightclubs that cater to older people during the day, about 20 masked people danced for the first time in about six months after being allowed to reopen with a vaccine pass requirement.
Health Ministry spokesman Son Young-rae said the medical system is designed to treat up to 5,000 new cases a day, but if the number rose to nearly 10,000, the government would halt the easing process and take emergency measures.
South Korea reported 1,686 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, for a total of 366,386, with a total of 2,858 deaths.
Reporting by Josh Smith and Sunghyuk An; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Daewoung Kim and Dogyun Kim; adaptation by Richard Pullin and Emelia Sithole-Matarise
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