By Yeni Seo and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – Some 300 South Korean small business owners protested in Seoul on Wednesday against the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to compensate them for financial losses and abandon its ‘vaccine pass’ policy .

South Korea reinstated tough distancing restrictions this week after easing them in November, as new infections and severe cases continue to set new records and expand medical services, despite a vaccination rate of more by 92%.

The measures, in effect until Jan. 2, include a curfew on 9 p.m. meals and a ban on gatherings of more than four people, who must be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated people can only eat out, or should use take-out or delivery options.

The reimposed restrictions have sparked a backlash from many small business owners who fear economic disaster as they are already grappling with losses and snowballing debt.

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The government offered financial support and last week unveiled a new package that included 1 million won ($ 838) in relief for each of the approximately 3.2 million businesses that suffered revenue cuts.

Protesters, however, said such one-off measures fell far short of making up for their losses.

“We have been following the rules for the past two years because the government promised compensation (…) but broke their promise,” said Yoon Sun-a, who manages four restaurants in Seoul.

Lee Sang-baek, from Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, said he “hardly had any empty hope for tomorrow,” while many others have closed their doors, gone bankrupt or even committed suicide.

President Moon Jae-in has apologized for re-establishing the borders and failing to stem the spread of the virus or secure enough hospital beds.

The rally was largely peaceful as organizers scrambled to meet the 299-person limit for protests under the tight sidewalks, though some people were seen briefly fighting with police as they attempted to join the event.

South Korea reported 7,456 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a week after recording a record daily count of 7,850, bringing the total number of infections to 583,065, including 234 cases of the highly transmissible variant of Omicron . There were 4,906 deaths.

The number of severe cases reached 1,063, a new record, with nearly 86% of intensive care unit beds occupied in the greater Seoul area.

(Reporting by Yeni Seo, Dogyun Kim, Minwoo Park and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Mark Potter)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.