Seats are once again packed at professional baseball games in South Korea. Just as in pre-pandemic times, fans can drink beer and eat fried chicken. They can clap their hands, stomp their feet, and wave inflatable noisemakers to support their team.
What they are not allowed to do, though, at least not yet, is shout or sing fight songs, a key feature of Korean baseball crowds.
“If you shout a lot, the virus will leak through your mask,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum pleaded with fans on a radio show this week, after crowds were seen as being too vocally supportive of their teams during tense playoff games.
It is a microcosm of how life is going in South Korea: basically, things are returning to normal, but they are not quite there yet.
Although South Korea never locked down during the coronavirus pandemic, it was never fully open either, especially as the country has battled a fourth wave of infections since July.
However, starting this week, the government rolled out the first step of its “living with COVID-19” plan. Bigger crowds can now gather in Seoul. Restaurants and cafes, including those that serve alcohol, are no longer subject to a nighttime curfew. Sports fans have returned to stadiums and arenas.
Barring setbacks, South Korea will phase out all social distancing rules by the end of February, two years after the country experienced one of the world’s first COVID-19 outbreaks.
South Korea’s COVID-19 approach has unquestionably been a success so far. It is one of very few countries to avoid both mass lockdowns and mass deaths.
Now, after outperforming its global peers at nearly every stage of the pandemic, South Korea hopes it can demonstrate how to live with COVID-19.
A cautious opening
For starters, few in South Korea are declaring victory. That is in contrast to countries such as the United States and Britain, where leaders announced independence from the virus and quickly eased social distancing, only to see the delta variant sweep through their populations, killing tens of thousands more in each country.
“The goal here is to set up a system where the government can relax the restrictions, but at the same time has criteria for moving back,” said Jerome Kim, director-general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.
There are good reasons for caution. Although over 75% of South Koreans are vaccinated, the number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases has not fallen since the fourth wave began.
“We do, I think at this point, have a realization that the vaccines are doing what they're supposed to do, which is preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. But they don't necessarily prevent infection,” Kim said.
Officials have repeatedly warned the opening up could be reversed. And they say some precautions, such as mandatory facemasks, may be around for the foreseeable future.
South Koreans seem receptive. According to a recent poll by Seoul National University, about 49% of South Koreans have mixed feelings about the loosened restrictions. Twenty-seven percent think it will be impossible to ever stop wearing masks, according to a survey by Gallup Korea.
Getting public support
Unlike many countries, South Korea has seen almost no domestic backlash to its pandemic approach.
Businesses largely complied with mandatory curfews. There has been no successful anti-vaccine movement. Virtually everyone wears masks, even when running alone outside on empty paths.
That public buy-in has been at the heart of South Korea’s COVID-19 success, according to public health experts. Not only has it given authorities more anti-pandemic tools, those tools are less coercive and more precise.
For instance, no vaccine mandates have been necessary; about 90% of adults have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Mass lockdowns, too, are unheard of; during the pandemic it has always been possible to go shopping or eat at a restaurant.
Perhaps the most invasive tool is South Korea’s system of contact tracing.
Using cellphone, credit card, and other personal data, authorities can quickly determine where those infected with COVID-19 have gone and who they may have contacted.
The contact tracing only became possible after South Korea’s National Assembly loosened privacy laws following a public outcry over the government’s handling of a deadly 2015 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
“I think there are a number of choices that people here have made in order to have freedom, which is really what it is,” Kim said.
As South Korea makes the transition toward living with the virus, it will continue to use many of those same tools, which have become a part of daily life.
Customers at every restaurant in Seoul are required to check in either via their phones or on a sign-up sheet at the counter. Temperature checks remain at the entrance of almost every business. Soon, electronic vaccine passes will be required to enter sporting events, concerts, and other large venues.
Some health experts caution that new standards may be necessary for defining COVID-19 success, though.
While many news outlets continue to focus on the number of confirmed daily cases, it will soon be important to pay attention to more meaningful measurements, such as the number of intensive care unit beds available or the number of serious illnesses.
“Even if there are 10,000 confirmed cases, it will still be more important to know the number of serious cases or what the fatality rate is,” said Chun Eun-mi, a respiratory disease specialist at Ewha Womans University Medical Center in Seoul.
Experts also warn inconsistencies may need to be addressed as authorities figure out the best path to follow.
During a previous round of social distancing, many South Korean newspapers mocked the strangely specific guidelines for Seoul fitness centers, which were prohibited from playing music with a tempo higher than 120 beats per minute. Joggers were also prevented from running faster than 6 kph on the treadmill.
More recently, Korean baseball fans are the ones questioning the rules against cheering. Why are they allowed to attend baseball games, they ask, but remain forbidden to vocally support their team?
South Korean officials insist that cheering may be allowed during future rounds of opening up.
For now, South Korea’s prime minister asked fans, “please reduce your shouts by just a little.”
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.