Seoul Closes Public Institutions After South Korea Sees 79 New COVID-19 Cases

Museums, churches, and art galleries are shut down until June 14 in Seoul, home to half of the country’s population

Visitors wearing face masks wait in line to enter an exhibition hall at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul on May 6, 2020.
On May 6, South Korea returned somewhat to normal, with businesses, museums and libraries reopening with social distancing measures in place. However, with a spike for more than 70 new cases in Seoul, museums have closed until June 14. Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

On May 28, South Korea reported a spike in COVID-19 cases—79 new confirmed cases, the largest daily count since early April. Because the majority of cases were identified in the capital Seoul, the city has shut down many of its public spaces until June 14.

The shutdown affects state-run museums, including the National Museum of Korea, the National Palace Museum of Korea, and the locations of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, Gwacheon and Deoksugung, the Art Newspaper’s Lisa Movius reports. The city’s theaters and parks will also close temporarily, and bars and nightclubs, which were shuttered only days after the nation’s reopening in early May, remain closed indefinitely. Many of the new cases come from an e-commerce warehouse.

“The next two weeks are crucial to prevent the spread of the infection in the metropolitan area,” health minister Park Neung-hoo tells the Guardian. “We will have to return to social distancing if we fail.”

In total, South Korea has identified just over 11,500 cases of COVID-19 since the disease was first confirmed there in January. Instead of enforcing a full lockdown, the country has managed the spread of the disease with thorough testing, contact tracing and isolating potentially infected people, as Derek Thompson reported for the Atlantic in early May when public spaces began to reopen.

The MMCA “reopened on 6 May and operated for 24 days, with 64,857 visitors” who reserved their tickets in advance online and followed social distancing guidelines while in the museum, a spokeswoman tells the Art Newspaper. She adds, “it seems to possible that the closure and opening of the museum could be repeated, depending on the situation of COVID-19.”

Park, the health minister, told the AFP on May 28 that if the country saw more than 50 new cases per day for a week, strict social distancing guidelines would have to be reinstated. On May 29, South Korea reported 58 new cases of COVID-19, but since then has seen less than 50 new cases each day, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many of the new cases appear tied to a distribution center for the e-commerce company Coupang. Per the Associated Press, officials say the company failed to enforce social distancing and protective measures, and told employees to work when ill. Coupang closed the warehouse last Monday, and by May 28 about 3,500 of the 4,000 employees had been tested, the Guardian reports. And as of May 29, 63 staff had tested positive and one of those people had recently attended a 300-person seminar, according to the Art Newspaper.

The director of the Korean CDC, Jeong Eun-kyeong, tells the Guardian that the increase in activity following the country’s early May reopening has made contact tracing more difficult.

“The number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” she tells the Guardian. “We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to what we can do. There is a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”

By closing public spaces including nine museums, four national performing arts theaters, and seven state art companies for two weeks, South Korea hopes to quell the spread of COVID-19 to fewer than ten new cases per day.

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