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‘New normal’: US troops fill South Korean restaurants after military lifts most virus restrictions

Sgt. Shawn Fowler, right, enjoys a meal with his troops at a restaurant outside Camp Humphreys, South Korea, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL AND MATTHEW KEELER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 20, 2020

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PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — American troops and civilians packed South Korean restaurants and barbershops for the first time in about three months Wednesday after the U.S. military lifted most anti-coronavirus restrictions for bases everywhere but the Seoul area.

Soldiers also withdrew from the gates at Camp Humphreys, Camp Casey and bases in the southeastern city of Daegu as the Army ended the need for health questionnaires and temperature checks aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.

Life slowly began to return to what the military is calling a “new normal” as the daily count of confirmed cases in South Korea remains low, but “adults-only” establishments like bars and clubs remain off-limits due to continued concern over cluster infections.

U.S. Forces Korea, which commands some 28,500 service members on the divided peninsula, announced Monday it was lowering its health alert level from Health Protection Condition Charlie to Bravo beginning at 6 a.m. Wednesday for all bases except Yongsan Garrison and others in the surrounding area.

The move happened as South Korea has begun to move toward normalcy, even beginning to reopen schools on Wednesday.

Defense Department schools on the military bases are still conducting classes online only, although people can now use local day care facilities.

‘New normal’

“I think it’s great that we are slowly rolling Bravo out so we are just not allowing the bars and clubs, but we are allowed to sit down in restaurants and to start to enjoy Korea again and allow us to start traveling,” Army Capt. Gabe Romero, 29, a medical operations officer from Covina, Calif., said as he enjoyed lunch at a kebab restaurant in the Anjeung-ri area outside Camp Humphreys.

USFK issued a chart with detailed guidelines on Tuesday, explaining that people may resume traveling and going to local establishments such as restaurants, salons and museums in all designated areas but must avoid bars and clubs, which were at the center of an outbreak in the popular district of Itaewon in Seoul.

The military also urged people to maintain social distancing and to wear masks when that’s not possible. Masks were still required for entry into on-base facilities.

“This is the ‘new normal’ — centered on 3 key tenets: protect yourself, protect your bubble, protect others,” USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams said Tuesday in a tweet.

“We need to ease into this with an abundance of caution,” he said. “Protect the force = protect the mission.”

The military largely locked down its 58,000-strong community after being caught in the middle of the burgeoning pandemic in late February when a massive outbreak began in the southeastern city of Daegu and nearby areas with 500 or more cases reported each day.

The South has been lauded for an aggressive testing, tracing and social distancing campaign that appears to have brought the virus largely under control. Officials have expressed concern about recent “sporadic infections” in Itaewon and the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul but said strict social distancing measure did not need to be renewed.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 38 new cases on Wednesday for a total of 11,110, with 263 deaths.

“Because of how well things are going here in Korea, I’m glad they are taking the steps to just bring everything back to normal,” said Army Sgt. Shawn Fowler, 26, of Tucson, Ariz. “It’s been really constricting not being able to actually go out and basically live our lives.”

However, he noted it’s a small step since soldiers remain under a military-wide travel ban that has been extended by the Pentagon until at least June 30 as the virus continues to ravage other countries including the United States.

“The only thing that is really affecting me right now is the travel restriction,” Fowler said, adding that he has applied for an exception to policy so he can return to his wife and daughters in Washington state on June 18. “I want to go home and see my family.”

Back to business

Local businesses, which had lost most of their customers due to the restrictions, were ready to make up their losses.

Song Ji Sue, supervisor of Hwa Hwa, a popular Korean barbecue restaurant near Camp Humphreys, said business had dropped by about 80% even though the Americans were allowed to order takeout, so she welcomed the full house on Wednesday.

“We have gone through a rough patch. It has been a very difficult time of us,” she said. “But they’re coming off the installation and visiting our restaurant again, so we feel good.”

One community that wasn’t happy on Wednesday was on Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, which used to be the main U.S. military base but is in the process of closing.

About 2,000 people are still stationed on Yongsan and the nearby K-16 base, which both remain at HPCON-Charlie and off-limits for nonessential travel from other bases until further notice. Residents may, however, go to other areas and participate in approved activities there.

Carla Reinisch, who lives in the U.S. Embassy residential area on Yongsan, said it was the only major Army installation without an infection.

USFK has reported 28 confirmed cases, including four active-duty service members, but most have recovered.

“It’s very tiring hanging out here and not being able to go anywhere,” Reinisch said, noting it’s difficult even to go for a walk off base or to get takeout because only two access gates are open.

“We’re all patient; we’ve all been doing good; and I feel like we’re not rewarded for all we’ve done so far,” she said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

keeler.matthew@stripes.com
Twitter: @MattKeeler1231

Soldiers assigned to U.S. Forces Korea dine at a restaurant outside Camp Humphreys, South Korea, but continue to maintain social distance on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.
MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES