(LEAD) Seoul mayor pushes for introduction of self-testing kits, extending hours for small businesses

April 12, 2021

Newly elected Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said Monday the city will look for ways to allow small businesses, hurt by prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, to operate longer hours and asked the central government to approve COVID-19 self-testing kits to support the plan.

“Many neighborhood businesses, which are the backbone of Seoul’s economy, have been collapsing. … The fundamental solution is to allow them to run their businesses,” Oh said during an online coronavirus briefing at the city government.

The city will work on “shifting the paradigm to ‘mutually beneficial’ virus restrictions, away from those that force small businesses to be the one who makes all the sacrifices,” he said, adding that the plan was intended to minimize negative impact on small businesses throughout the protracted health crisis.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon talks during a coronavirus briefing at the Seoul city government on April 12, 2021. (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon talks during a coronavirus briefing at the Seoul city government on April 12, 2021. (Yonhap)

The move comes in response to growing complaints from small businesses, such as restaurants, gyms, bars and cafes, which have been reeling from strict business restrictions led by the central government.

Business owners have claimed they have been disproportionately hurt by what they called the government’s inconsistent, confusing and unfair measures.

As part of an important pillar of the plan, the mayor called on the central government to approve rapid self-testing kits, which he said produce the test results within 10-30 minutes and have been widely used in several countries, including the United States and Germany, both to contain the spread of the virus and to help people safely go about their daily lives.

According to the mayor, a few Korean companies have exported such kits, but none has been locally approved.

“We will actively review running a pilot program at karaoke businesses to see if the kits are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Last week, the mayor affiliated with the main opposition People Power Party, ordered the city’s officials to review the blanket bans on businesses after 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. to better meet the needs of each industry.

The capital city, home to nearly 10 million of the country’s total 52 million population, has been also working on social distancing rules of its own, with an aim to finish a draft by this weekend and to consult with the central government sometime next week, he said.

The move by the mayor, however, signals that the city could be on a collision course with the central government, which has been toying with tightening virus restrictions amid rising infection cases.

The country has averaged over 600 daily COVID-19 cases in the past week, in what some experts say the early stage of the fourth wave of the pandemic.

In apparent efforts to dispel worries about potential policy inconsistency and confusion, he said the city will remain in close consultation with the central government even for running a pilot program.

The goal is for the city to eventually “replace the current restriction system with one that is readily applicable, effective and more targeted to individual businesses,” he said.

He warned, at the same time, business owners will be required to shoulder heavier responsibility and penalties for failing to comply with the new system when it is enforced.