Rows of beach umbrellas stand on Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Saturday (Yonhap)
Despite an extended heat wave scorching South Korea for nearly a week, almost all popular beaches nationwide were noticeably quieter than usual on Saturday, apparently due to growing public jitters over the spread of COVID-19.
Unrelenting hot weather continued in most parts of the country for the sixth consecutive day, with daily maximum temperatures reaching 36 C in Seoul and elsewhere, according to the state weather agency.
Contrary to expectations, however, many public beaches and other popular holiday destinations across the country were visited by far fewer people than in previous years, influenced largely by the toughest social distancing restrictions currently enforced by authorities.
Busan's Haeundae Beach, one of the nation's most popular summer destinations which used to draw up to 1 million vacationers on a weekend day, was visited by only about 40,000 on Saturday, said officials in the southern port, where daily coronavirus cases have topped 100 for the past four days in a row.
The city's two other nationally renowned beaches -- Gwangalli and Songjeong -- were also visited by some 20,000 and 10,000 people, respectively, the officials said, adding other beaches in Busan were also very quiet all day.
The atmosphere has also changed a lot from previous years, as most vacationers wearing masks stroll or relax on the sandy beach, rather than jumping into the sea, they noted. In Busan, where Level 3 social distancing rules, the second toughest in a four-tier system, are in force, nighttime eating and drinking are banned on public beaches.
On most east coastal beaches, the number of vacationers halved from the pre-coronavirus years.
In Pohang, only 150 people visited Guryongpo Beach, a landmark place of the southeastern South Korean port city, as of 1 p.m.
In Gangneung, another east coastal city which now enforces the toughest social distancing restrictions of Level 4, most public beaches, including Gyeongpo Beach, were also quiet compared with the previous years.
Municipal authorities conducted disinfection of major beach facilities, including entrances and exits, three times a day. Many vacationers were seen entering the sea wearing a mask.
On Saturday, the Gangwon Province county of Yangyang, just north of Gangneung, announced that it will raise its social distancing rules by one notch to Level 4 from Sunday to August 1, becoming the nation's second region outside of the greater Seoul area to shift to the toughest distancing rules.
Yangyang, home to many renowned beaches on the east coast, said the tougher distancing restrictions, under which beaches are closed at 8 p.m. and a 10 p.m. curfew is imposed on restaurants and cafes, are inevitable due to a recent spike in its COVID-19 cases.
The number of visitors to west coastal beaches also decreased sharply this summer. Exceptionally, however, many beaches on the southern resort island of Jeju were still crowded with vacationers. (Yonhap)