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South Korean Cities Using Tracing Apps to Restart Nightlife: ‘I Think Our Customers Feel Safer’

In early May, health officials in Seoul, South Korea, traced a spike in coronavirus infections to reopened nightclubs in one part of the city. Now, in an effort to help rein in future outbreaks, authorities have begun requiring venues across the country to scan contact-tracing applications on clubbers’ mobile phones before granting them entrance.

The apps, which employ scannable QR codes confirming that users have not tested positive for COVID-19, are playing a role in restarting nightlife in two cities, after lockdowns shuttered clubs there for more than three months. While Seoul has yet to reopen its clubs, the cities of Daejeon and Gwangju began using QR-code scanning at venues on June 12, club promoters tell Billboard.

On a recent Saturday night at Libertine, a club in Gwangju, clubbers, most without masks or socially distancing, lined up outside the club, which is known for EDM. Club staff put temperature guns to clubbers’ heads, checked IDs and scanned their phones for QR codes.

“It takes longer to get people inside, as some people are having trouble getting their QR code ready,” says Young-min Kim, a promoter at Libertine. “But at least it will make things safe, and I think our clientele prefers the fact that we can back trace everyone properly with the code.”

South Korea’s use of the apps highlights the role of technology in restoring confidence to venues and clubbers. Since the pandemic took hold earlier this year, a number of countries, including the United States, have been developing contact-tracing apps to help track, and ultimately slow, the spread of the virus. In China, some nightclubs in Shanghai have employed a QR code app that relies on GPS tracking since mid-March.

But data privacy intrusions have made venue owners in some countries hesitant to employ the apps as a sort of entry passport. Norway introduced a contact-tracing app in mid-April, only to announce it would shut down the app on June 16 because of privacy concerns. The app relied on GPS to track the movement of users that tested positive for the virus. Other apps, such as those being developed using architecture designed jointly by Apple and Google, instead use more privacy-friendly Bluetooth.

In South Korea, privacy has been less of a concern to most people. Since early in the pandemic, the country has been utilizing a range of phone apps — as well as readily available free testing — to help understand where the virus is circulating. During the initial stages of the outbreak, a university student created the “Coronavirus Map” app which informs users of the movements of confirmed patients based on information released by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Startups later created apps such as “Now and Here,” which calculates a mix of risk factors in surrounding areas when users enter their commuting routes. Another app, Cobaek, sends an alarm when users are within 100 meters of a place that a COVID-19-positive patient has visited.

The use of such technology, combined with more traditional contact tracing methods carried out by people have been credited by scientists for helping to flatten South Korea’s infection curve. As of June 21, the country had more than 12,400 total cases of COVID-19 and 280 deaths. (South Korea’s contact-tracing success contrasts with New York City, where with scant use of technology, some 3,000 human contact tracers have struggled to identify people who have come in contact with infected patients.)

Spate of New Infections Strikes Seoul Nightclubs

After loosening lockdown restrictions in April, a cluster of more than 130 infections last month were traced to nine nightclubs in the Itaewon district of Seoul. After the outbreak, the government sent out phone alerts to anyone it could determine had been in or near the Itaewon venues between April 24 and May 6. Health authorities eventually tested about 35,000 people in connection with the cluster. They reviewed guest books and credit-card payments at venues, asked telecom companies to provide the locations of people suspected of being infected, and worked with police to identify people from CCTV footage inside the clubs.

Despite concerns within the gay community about efforts to out them — several of the venues where the virus was spreading were gay clubs — the government held talks with two of South Korea’s largest IT companies, Naver and Kakao, about hosting QR code apps. Naver won the initial contract. But in a bid to make QR-code scanning as widely available as possible, health authorities announced on June 19 that they were in talks with Kakao to also include a QR code on the Kakao messenger apps.

The QR code on the Naver app is a one-time use only code. Users’ data is being stored with the health ministry in an encrypted form and is only recovered when an infection appears at the business, according to Korean media reports. Once the business owner scans it, the information is stored for four weeks.

Since the outbreak, the South Korean government has required the use of QR code apps at nightclubs. But it left local governments with the discretion to impose even stricter health restrictions if they chose to. Seoul and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi — where most of Korea’s hippest clubs are located — decided to close all nightclubs indefinitely. As of now, Daejeon, Gwangju and Busan are the only big cities in Korea with open nightclubs.

While use of the scanning app became mandatory as of June 10, businesses will not be punished for not using it until the end of the month.

In Gwangju, which hasn’t seen a new coronavirus infection in more than three weeks, attitudes towards wearing masks and social distancing have become lax compared to Seoul. As the recent Saturday progressed, and more clubbers became inebriated, even less were donning masks.

Kim, the Libertine promoter, says lately more people from other regions of Korea are visiting the club. “I think they know our city does not have many infection cases compared to the rest of Korea,” he says.

“I think our customers feel safer than before the QR code scanning came into force because everyone can be back traced and no one coming into our bar can stay anonymous,” says Seong Lee, a promoter at 2020’s, a dance bar in Gwangju. “You only need to look at the length of the line outside the bar to see how safe people feel now.”

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