South Korean Restaurants Despair Amid Turnaround To ‘Live With COVID’ | Coronavirus pandemic


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Seoul, South Korea – Just weeks after South Korea launched its ‘live with COVID’ campaign to get back to normal life, small business owners like Lee Kyuna are feeling the pressure again.

From Saturday to January 2 at least, Lee will be forced to close her restaurant at 9 p.m. each day under a curfew put in place to mitigate a record increase in coronavirus cases.

The owner of Kantina, a restaurant in a quiet residential area of ​​Seoul, is still recovering from the impact of the latest round of restrictions, which were only lifted on November 1.

“The revenues say it all – a 40 percent drop,” Lee told Al Jazeera. “Seriously. Normally, I would have clients until 12 or 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But it all stopped.

Restaurant Lee is among 2.7 million small businesses in South Korea feeling the pain of pandemic restrictions, the latest of which includes a curfew for restaurants, cafes, bars and cinemas, and a ban on private gatherings in more than four people.

Although the South Korean economy has weathered the pandemic better than many of its peers – with an estimated 4% growth in 2021 thanks to strong exports and a rebound in the global economy – family businesses have been hit by repeated rounds of restrictions on their hours of operation.

Restaurant owners such as Lee Kyuna have been hit hard by South Korean restrictions on opening hours. [Courtesy of Morten Soendergaard Larsen]

In September, business owners took to the streets to protest curfews and restrictions, which organizers say resulted in the permanent shutdown of 453,000 businesses during the pandemic.

Ninety percent of Korean companies are considered small and medium-sized enterprises, employing 83% of the workforce, according to the Ministry of SMEs and Startups.

The latest restrictions come despite South Korea having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 80% of the total population doubling.

Chuck Chun, who runs an American-style restaurant in central Seoul, told Al Jazeera that the business environment had forced him to adjust his plans to open an outlet in another location.

“We ended up opening another restaurant as a delivery kitchen, that was our backbone,” Chun said. “When we have fewer internal customers here, deliveries go up, but that never makes up for the number of people who actually come in. “

“People stay here for a few hours, and they drink, and they eat, and they keep drinking,” Chun added. “We’re losing all of this stuff. And on top of that, we pay a 30 percent fee [on deliveries], so yes, it is useful, because it helps us to keep our heads above water. But it’s not worth it.

Small business owners like Chuck Chun had to put their expansion plans on hold [Courtesy of Morten Soendergaard Larsen]

SME and Startup Minister Kwon Chil-seung announced on Friday that companies affected by the latest rules would be eligible for payments of 100 million Korean won ($ 84,000) each no later than February.

The financial support comes on top of billions of dollars the government has already spent to fight the pandemic, including a 310 trillion won ($ 261.59 billion) program last year that included low-cost loans. interest rates and emergency grants for small businesses.

“Everyone expects a gloomy new year, we expect many civil complaints about being paid,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of SMEs and Startups told Al Jazeera.

“Some might not be happy, but the amount will be higher than last time.”

Lee Doo-won, professor of macroeconomics at Yonsei University, told Al Jazeera that the economy is feeling the pressure despite relatively high gross domestic product (GDP) figures on paper.

“After the vaccination program started at the start of this year, the number of people infected has declined rapidly. So there was a pretty optimistic view of consumption and investment, ”said Lee.

“But then we had the Delta variant in the middle of this summer and then another, the Omicron variant. Consumption is therefore not picking up as quickly as we hoped.

“A sinking boat”

For Lee, the owner of the restaurant in Seoul, the latest restrictions have left her thinking about her options if her business goes bankrupt.

“I’m going to have to think of a plan B or C,” she said. “Maybe get my deposit back from my apartment and live with my parents again. It could be any day if I try plan B and it doesn’t work, in the next few months I will move in with them.

While Lee is angry, she’s hoping to redirect that energy in a positive direction after changing her menu from Japanese-style chicken, which has mostly drawn late-night revelers, to Mediterranean cuisine.

“I wanted to cook and serve people which is what really excites and excites me, and my passion was Mediterranean cuisine,” she said. “The pandemic kind of gave me the opportunity to do something that I really love. I kind of had to find something that I could pursue and put my energy into instead of just being a sinking boat. “

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