Woohae Cho / The New York Times

Even though residents of Seoul are allowed to leave their houses, most still wear masks in public.

May 7, 2020

Life After Lockdown: Cornell Students in Atlanta and Seoul Still Stay Home

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In New York City, restaurants stand barren as non-essential businesses were forced to close. In San Francisco, citizens risk fines or imprisonment for trips that aren’t to grocery stores.

But in a few places around the world, restrictions have been lifted, leaving Cornell students wary of watching their hometowns slowly reopen.

Since March 13, Cornell students have scattered all over the world and are now finishing off a semester via Zoom. While states’ and countries’ responses to the pandemic move at different speeds, lockdowns in two in South Korea and Georgia have been lifted, causing some Cornellians to live very different day-to-day lives than their classmates.

Terryn Jung ’22 witnessed the shift in her home city of Seoul, South Korea, which has reopened to a new normal.

“Things are definitely different compared to a few weeks ago,” she said.

Although South Korea was never under an official lockdown, the country is still considered to have “stood out from the rest” in the way it handled the coronavirus, according to The New York Times. The country responded swiftly to the coronavirus, implementing widespread testing and contact tracing, while having support from citizens.

Even as restrictions have been relaxed, people continue to wear masks everywhere and take extra precautions.

“Almost everyone is still wearing a mask,” Jung said, and pharmacies are still restricting buying in bulk to prevent hoarding. “Small things like these have been the same, from both before and after things have gotten better.”

The image of people clad in masks is also one that has stuck out to Jonathan Kim ’22, another Seoul resident.

“Not a single person is seen without a mask on the streets of Seoul,” he said, even though the country is no longer battling the virus’ peak.

Back in the U.S., Candace Megerssa ’22 spoke of a steeper change in Atlanta, where the lockdown was officially lifted on April 30.

Georgia was one of the first U.S. states to lift stay-at-home orders, and also had 29,800 confirmed cases as of May 5. Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) came under fire from politicians — such as former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams — and citizens alike for ending the lockdown prematurely.

“Reopen? Dangerously incompetent,” Abrams tweeted on April 20.

Despite the criticism, Megerssa said there was a surge in visitors to parks and public spaces once the state reopened, naming Piedmont Park and Stone Mountain Park as two examples that are now packed with people.

In Seoul, however, even without experiencing a government-imposed lockdown, the government implored its citizens to stay home in late February. According to Kim, it appears as if most South Koreans listened and continue to stay home.

“Most small businesses, including restaurants and bars, have been operating despite having very few customers, sometimes zero a day,” Kim said. He saw signs in stores that promise they disinfect twice a day, trying to alleviate customers’ virus-based paranoia.

For both Kim and Jung, despite the lack of lockdown law, the majority of their time in Seoul has been marked by four walls and a roof.

Since the restrictions and public areas have been loosened, Kim’s first trip outside was to the hairdresser.

“The first thing I did was to get a haircut. It was the first one I got since my last trim in late January,” he said.

Throughout the U.S., stay-at-home orders have elicited backlash from protesters, who condemn the orders as an affront to personal freedoms. Although these protests also took place in Georgia, Megerssa still stays home in Atlanta.

“I find that although technically the restrictions have been lifted that most people are hesitant to return to business as usual and many local businesses have chosen to stay closed,” Megerssa said. “I haven’t left the house at all.”

Jung and Megerssa both said that they do not feel as though their restrictions should have been eased any earlier.

“We were one of the last states to implement restrictions despite being home to a large city and the busiest airport in the world. We are now one of the first to ease restrictions even though death rates are still rising,” Megerssa said. “We should have never lifted the restrictions this early. My hope is that most people will still try to practice social distancing.”

For Jung, South Korea — which had begun to encourage isolation in early February — made a positive decision by proceeding with caution.

“I’m actually very thankful for the schedule that our government stuck to,” Jung said. “While Korea’s success in handling the virus was a joint effort, had the government lifted the social distancing period earlier, we would not be at the state we are in right now.”

While Atlanta’s population was quick to return to public spaces in search of their previous lives, Kim believes this pandemic will have life-altering effects for everyone.

“I don’t think our lives will ever return to normal,” he said.