South Korea: Cafe, Gym Owners File Lawsuits over Coronavirus Lockdowns

Woman working out at gym
Unsplash/Danielle Cerullo

Cafe and gym owners in South Korea are filing separate lawsuits against the government this week seeking compensation for losses suffered under federally-mandated business shutdowns during the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

“At the Seoul Western District Court on Tuesday, 203 gym owners belonging to the Pilates and Fitness Business Association filed for 5 million won (US$4,549) each for about 1 billion won [about $913,000] in total,” South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday.

The association filed a similar lawsuit with the Seoul Southern District Court in December demanding 765 million won (nearly $700,000) for the same reason.

The South Korean government on December 6 ordered the greater Seoul area to adhere to the nation’s second-highest level of social distancing measures as part of an effort to curb a then-surging number of new daily coronavirus cases. The “Level 2.5” restrictions forced all indoor gyms in the national capital region to shut down as part of a related “assembly ban.”

“If the government imposed an assembly ban and other restrictions simply due to the belief that (saliva) sprays more at indoor sports facilities, they must reconsider,” Park Joo-hyung, head of Seoul’s Pilates and Fitness Business Association said during a press conference outside the Seoul Western District Court on January 12.

Park claimed that “only 0.64 percent of last year’s coronavirus infections in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province were traced to indoor gyms,” according to Yonhap.

“We want (the government) to bring us scientific data or prove our analysis wrong,” he added.

South Korea’s federal government in early January extended the “Level 2.5” restrictions in the greater Seoul area to last until at least January 17.

“In announcing the extension, however, the government allowed ballet and taekwondo schools to hold classes of up to nine people, sparking an outcry among gym owners,” the Korea Times reported on January 5.

Gym owners in the capital region responded to the announcement by opening their facilities in protest of the “unfair” restrictions.

“A policy that applies different standards to the same type of indoor sports facility isn’t fair,” a Seoul-area gym owner named Oh Seong-young told the newspaper.

“Gym operators reopened their businesses while following antivirus rules because we can’t possibly continue to live like this,” he said.

Oh’s local gym association estimated that more than 300 gyms in the capital region had re-opened their facilities by January 5 in defiance of the shutdown extension.

Seoul coffee shops have been similarly affected by the extended “assembly ban” in the capital region. A government-mandated “Level 2” restriction in the Seoul area from November 23 banned restaurants from offering dine-in services. The order has forced local business owners to try to survive on delivery and takeout orders alone.

“On Thursday, around 200 cafe owners plan to file a suit against the government at the Seoul Central District Court, seeking 5 million won in damages each, the national cafe owners association said Monday,” Yonhap reported on January 12.

“We’re filing a suit out of desperation because our livelihoods are at risk due to the government’s COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] regulations,” Ko Jang-soo, the founder of South Korea’s national cafe owners association, said on Monday.

“We urge the government to come up with a consistent and fair system,” he added.

Kim Ho-young, a lawyer representing the cafe owners, said that the restrictions on coffee shops amounted to “arbitrary discrimination” without “rational reason.” Kim added that the plaintiffs plan to file a separate petition with South Korea’s Constitutional Court.

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