The streets of Seoul quietened down yesterday as South Korea entered its second day of tightened social distancing aimed at curbing a two-week spike that raised coronavirus infections to 19,947, with indoor golf simulators closed for the first time while cafe chains offered takeouts only.
However, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of this so-called Level 2.5, out of a three-tier system which would ban gatherings of more than 10 people at its strictest. The current level prohibits gatherings of 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.
Wary of economic and social repercussions if social distancing is raised to the highest Level 3, the health authorities focused efforts on discouraging social gatherings of young people aged between 20 and 40, who accounted for nearly 40 per cent of confirmed cases last week.
Cafe chains popular for socialising, such as Starbucks and A Twosome Place, have been ordered to operate on takeout orders only.
All restaurants have to cease operations from 9pm, a move aimed at stopping the social practice of going for second and third rounds of gatherings after dinner. Takeout and delivery orders are still permitted from 9pm to 5am.
Indoor sports facilities popular with this age group, including billiards and indoor golf, have also been told to close.
However, observers have questioned if this scheme is effective, pointing out that cafe enthusiasts can easily switch to non-franchise brands while people can continue to gather in big numbers at home.
The ChosunBiz newspaper said there are "holes everywhere" in the government's latest policy, noting that people are now chatting over coffee at bakery cafes, fast-food joints and even convenience stores with outdoor seating.
Golfers, meanwhile, are gathering at outdoor driving ranges instead of indoor facilities.
Inha University consumer science professor Lee Eun-hee said it is "nonsensical" to allow bakery cafes to operate as normal while restricting cafe chains.
"Policies made during this time should be more elaborate and detailed. There should not be any quarantine holes, and no controversy about equality within the industry," she said. "The government should also consider how to induce the behaviour of consumers who value individual freedom."
The health authorities have urged people to stay at home and refrain from joining social gatherings as much as possible during a "standstill week" that lasts till Sunday.
The country reported 248 new cases yesterday. The death toll stands at 324.
The number of untraceable infections has also grown to worrying levels. The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday that the origins of 22.7 per cent of the 4,432 cases confirmed in the past two weeks remain unclear, and this is the highest figure since they started compiling data in April.
Senior health official Yoon Tae-ho said the goal is to maintain the downward trend of new virus cases. The daily figure has been falling since last Thursday's 441 - the highest in this round of the outbreak. "Tightened measures can be eased only if our quarantine system is deemed to have recovered its ability to control the virus situation," he added.
Ms Kim Ye-seul, 26, a customer service specialist, told The Straits Times that she has been working from home since Aug 24, when her company shut down completely.
"I used to spend my spare time taking ballet lessons and hanging out with friends outside, but both have been cancelled. Going to cafes for desserts is not safe any more, so I bought a waffle maker," she said.
Mr Alexander Kim, 46, who owns an indoor golf simulator club, said he has received seven calls from customers wanting to make a booking, unaware that his club had been ordered to close since Sunday. If it stays open, he will be fined.
He said: "Of course I worry about income, but I also hope the coronavirus situation will subside soon."