Govt. eases restriction on business operating hours outside greater Seoul area

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun (Yonhap)

SEOUL, Feb. 2021:The government said Saturday it will allow businesses outside the greater Seoul area to operate until 10 p.m., relaxing the distancing rules amid growing discontent over the prolonged virus curbs. The revised measure will permit businesses like restaurants and fitness clubs to extend their operating hours by one hour under Level 2 distancing currently imposed on the provincial regions, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a government response meeting.

"After careful deliberation based on the various opinions from all walks of life, we are adjusting the business hours for publicly used facilities," he said. Chung added that each local government will have the discretion over the implementation of the relaxed distancing guidelines. Chung explained that the government reflected the growing demand from businesses that have taken the brunt of the economic impact from COVID-19, vowing all-out efforts to provide them with assistance.

He also stressed that the eased measure must not lead to a virus resurgence and warned against violating the distancing restrictions. Seoul and the surrounding areas are under Level 2.5, the second highest in the five-tier system. The 9 p.m. closing will be maintained for these areas. "More than 70 percent of the patients are from the Seoul metropolitan area, and the infection risks remain high," Chung said. On Friday, South Korea added 370 more COVID-19 cases, with the cumulative caseload of 80,131 surpassing the 80,000 mark. (Yonhap)

Industrial accident bill passes assembly despite brawl

SEOUL, Jan 8, 2021:The National Assembly on Friday passed a bill to enhance employer liability in industrial accidents, amid persistent backlash from business circles. The corresponding bill was laid out to the parliamentary plenary session in the afternoon and obtained 164 votes out of the 266 lawmakers attending, while 44 dissented and 58 abstained. Under these new enhanced rules, employers are to face a minimum jail sentence of one year or a maximum fine of 1 billion won ($915,751), should a deathly industrial accident occur. The company will separately face a maximum fine of 5 billion won. Also, both the top executive and the company may face punitive damages of up to five times.

While the law is to take effect a year from legislative notice, a grace period will be applied to small-sized businesses with five or less employees reflecting the latest suggestion from the Ministry of SMEs and Startups. The exceptive clause, however, has been raising concerns as it is these small-sized businesses that are most vulnerable to industrial accidents. Of the 206 people who died from industrial accidents in 2019, 164 or 79.6 percent were workers at SMEs with fewer than 50 staff members. Small business units with less than 5 employees accounted for 42 deaths, or 20.4 percent.

Pointing to such reality, families of deceased industrial accident victims and the progressive minority Justice Party have been urging for a swift passage of the bill, blaming political parties for “sitting on the bill.” Business groups, in contrast, have been protesting and saying that the bill in question is excessive and that it may be replaced by other industrial safety policies. The Federation of Construction Associations issued a statement Friday, after the parliamentary legislative committee passed the bill, saying that it feels “helpless” over what it saw as a forceful progress of a disputed agenda.

Earlier, leading business groups repeatedly voiced their disapproval against the multiple regulations to weigh upon business operators. “We request that ‘poisonous clauses’ be removed from the current industrial accident bill, so as to reflect the actual feedback of the business circles,” said Korea Enterprises Federation Chairman Sohn Kyung-shik in his meetings with key party officials. Sohn is also the chairman of conglomerate CJ Group. “The priority is to enhance the country’s relatively stalled preventive measures, not to add another set of restrictions and sanctions for employers.”

For instance, the KEF asserted that a serious industrial accident should be defined in further details, such as one that that involves “several” deaths on a repeated number of cases. Also, the mandatory preventive measures of the employer should be stipulated more precisely and employers who have duly performed their supervisory duties should be exempt from sanctions, it added. By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)

COVID-19 Patient in Seoul Dies Waiting For Hospital Bed

YONHAP, Dec 17, 2020:: Public health officials said Thursday a Seoul resident in their 60s had died while waiting to be admitted to a hospital after a COVID-19 diagnosis, marking the first such case to be reported in the capital since the pandemic began. They said the patient, who was with preexisting health conditions, died at home Tuesday after having waited three days for a hospital bed since testing positive for the coronavirus on Saturday. Significant bed shortages are straining hospitals in Seoul, which has long been Korea’s COVID-19 epicenter, as the city counts a record number of 423 new cases on Thursday.

All of the intensive care unit beds for COVID-19 patients at Seoul hospitals were filled by Wednesday afternoon. None of the “semi-ICU” beds, intended to accommodate patients requiring critical care once ICUs reach full capacity, were available, either. On the same day, Korea shattered yet another record for COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations nationwide, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention’s situation report. Twenty-two people died in the 24 hours ending Wednesday midnight, the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in a single day. The figure comes just two days after the previous record of 13 was set on Monday.

By Wednesday there were 12,209 patients are undergoing treatment either at hospitals or nonhospital facilities, of whom 242 are in intensive care also the highest ever number. The government claims that Korea’s health care system “still has room to cope.” Despite zero ICU space and the death of a patient who was unable to be admitted to hospital, Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, told a virtual news briefing Thursday morning, “At the present moment, Korea is not at a point where its health care system is unable to provide appropriate care to patients.”

He said the key considerations for moving on to a stricter social distancing tier were by how far to the limit the contact tracing and health care systems were being pushed. “But Korea’s situation hasn’t arrived at that point yet,” he said, once again dispelling the possibility of toughened rules coming into effect. In a text message late Wednesday afternoon, the Health Ministry told reporters the decision for designating the country’s strictest tier of COVID-19 restrictions was “not imminent,” and that it would come “after careful deliberation about the economic costs.”

Korea confirmed 1,014 cases -- 993 locally transmitted and 21 imported -- on Thursday, putting the cumulative total of official cases at 46,453. The number of testing conducted increased nearly seven- to 10-fold to 50,071, after rapid antigen kits have been allowed for use to diagnose COVID-19 starting this week. (Kim Arin)