Small business owners rally in Seoul to protest virus curbs

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Small business owners stage a rally against the government’s social distancing rules near the Government Complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Hundreds of small business owners rallied on Wednesday, calling for the withdrawal of curfews and other strict COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, cafes, gyms and other facilities. The signs read “Compensate for loss.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hundreds of small business owners rallied in South Korea’s capital on Wednesday, calling for the withdrawal of a curfew and tough coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, cafes, gyms and other facilities.

The protesters pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Guarantee the right to live!” and “Scrap restrictions on business operations!”

Some jeered when a lawmaker took the podium to explain aid packages proposed by the governing party presidential candidate. But no major violence or clashes with police erupted.

Under current social distancing guidelines, up to 299 people are allowed to join rallies but all must be fully vaccinated.

On Saturday, South Korea reimposed its toughest social distancing rules to try to control a record-breaking surge of the coronavirus. Most new cases in South Korea are still the delta variant, but health officials say the new omicron variant could become the dominant strain in a few months.

The restored curbs include a ban on private gatherings of five or more people, a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants, coffee shops and karaoke venues, and required proof of vaccination for entry to restaurants and other businesses.

The government last week announced aid packages including 1 million won ($839) each to business owners who have suffered lower sales due to COVID-19 restrictions. Small business owners said that’s not enough to offset their losses.

“The financial assistance must be drastically increased … there should be as much compensation as our losses,” Oh Se-hee, leader of an association of small business owners, said in a speech at the Seoul rally.

The current restrictions are to last until Jan. 2. Oh said small business owners will hold street rallies nationwide if the government extends the curbs.

On Wednesday, health authorities reported 7,456 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, continuing an upward trend. A record 1,063 patients were in serious or critical condition.

South Korea has confirmed 234 cases of the new omicron variant.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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