Inside a South Korean theme park that refused to let COVID-19 shut it down

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Inside a South Korean theme park that refused to let COVID-19 shut it down

SEOUL, South Korea ⁠— On a sultry Friday afternoon, an upbeat folk song yodels from the speakers at the Everland amusement park in Yongin, about 35 miles south of Seoul. Young men crouch down, tilting their heads in the blazing heat to take pictures of their girlfriends posing to the rhythm of the camera clicks. Frazzled parents rummage through backpacks and slap sunscreen on their toddlers’ rosy cheeks while holding up mini fans to their own clammy foreheads.

It’s a typical scene at South Korea’s largest outdoor park on a June afternoon.

A couple and their baby at the entrance to Everland amusement park in South Korea.Grace Moon / for NBC News

But as the music dims down before transitioning to the next song, visitors enter a brief but sobering silence. Eyeing their surroundings, they pull up their masks, reminded of the reality.

Throughout South Korea’s monthslong struggle with the coronavirus outbreak, Everland, its most popular theme park, never closed its doors, only slightly altering its regular closing time from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Most of the park’s attractions have been open since May 6, when South Korea shifted to a less intense “everyday quarantine” routine. Only its children-friendly Kizcovery nature-themed playground and virtual reality activities remain closed.

At the epidemic’s peak in late February, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 909 daily cases. The majority of those cases emerged in the city of Daegu, once the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter, but people across the country, including Gyeonggi-do, the province in which Yongin is located, still kept to strict guidelines by staying cooped up inside their homes.

This sharp adherence to governmental guidelines paired with early, accessible testing and intensive tracing helped South Korea flatten the curve by late March.

Choi Woo-Jung, a local resident and the mother of an 8-year-old son, said it was a “ghost town” when she visited during the peak in mid-March.

“I remember only two or three people walked past me at the main gate,” Choi, 39, said. “But some moms like myself felt safer visiting then because it was essentially empty. I’m surprised at how crowded the park is already getting.”

Choi Woo-Jung (right) with her friends and their children at Everland amusement park in South Korea.Grace Moon / for NBC News

Lee Myung-Ho, who was waiting for an outdoor performance with his eight-year-old daughter, agreed that the turnout was larger than expected, but that the atmosphere wasn’t “cheerful.”

“The way people are playing feels half-hearted almost,” said Lee, 42. “We’re all at this park with our children, but walking on eggshells. Staying at home is suffocating though, so I think parents at this point would rather come out and just be careful.”

Riders in line for the park’s famous wooden T-Express roller coaster were spaced out a row from each other while employees walked around disinfecting handlebars with an alcohol spray before and after each group. Even with these extra procedures, lines were so short on Friday that some people immediately circled back for a second ride.

Riders wearing face masks are seen on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Shanghai Disney Resort after the coronavirus pandemic in May.China News Service / Getty file

Meanwhile, Disney has begun cautiously executing its phased reopening – a move that comes less than a month after the nation’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000. Attractions like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Islands of Adventure already reopened in mid-May, with Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks preparing to follow suit on July 11.

In Asia, Shanghai’s Disneyland was the first of the six parks around the globe to welcome visitors again, but only after undergoing a three-month hiatus. Likewise, Universal Studios Japan also made a comeback on June 8, but after about three months of closing.

To close or not to close was the question that haunted Minjung Ko, who oversees the park’s safety and technology, since late January when the nation’s first coronavirus case surfaced.

“It’s still scary, and despite the country’s access to testing and intensive tracking systems, the only solution until we have a vaccine is to continue making sure that we do not revert to old habits while having fun,” said Ko.

Since May 6, when South Korea shifted to a less intense “everyday quarantine” routine, Everland has reopened most of its attractions. Only its children-friendly Kizcovery nature-themed playground and VR activities remain closed.

A performer entertains crowds at Everland amusement park in South Korea.Grace Moon / for NBC News

The park’s decision to stay open was never barred by the government, explained Lee Sunju, who serves as the Senior Deputy Director of the Central Disaster Management Headquarters.

“We never issued a mandate requiring parks to close,” Lee said. “This was because we decided that if facilities maintained hygiene and followed social distancing rules, a complete shutdown wouldn’t be necessary unless someone at the facility tested positive.”

With the exception of state-run facilities like libraries and national museums as well as adult entertainment establishments that were temporarily shut down in March, the decision to stay open has for the most part been in the hands of businesses.

An “operate at your own risk” system is in place — one that trusts people to follow rules, but if broken, can result in fines as high as 3,000,000 KRW which is the equivalent to about $2,500.

Employees at Everland amusement park in South Korea.Grace Moon / for NBC News

As people’s energy began to wane at sunset, couples and families retreated into the shade, pulling their sweat-drenched masks down to their chin to take in a few gulps of cool air.

But by the time another person emerged in the vicinity, the masks were already back up.

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