South Korean Movie Theaters Suffer Amid MERS Outbreak

AP/Invision

The premieres and release date for anticipated summer blockbuster 'Northern Limit Line' have been canceled or postponed due to the nationwide fear of the viral respiratory illness that is new to humans.

South Korean movie theaters are normally jam-packed on weekends — the Asian country has the world's highest rate of movie-going — but admissions were considerably down this past weekend amid the MERS outbreak.

As of Monday, six South Koreans have died due to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a respiratory illness that is new to humans and for which there is no vaccine. The outbreak in Korea has been the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the virus was discovered three years ago. Korean authorities have reported 87 cases of the disease since diagnosing the country's first MERS illness last month in a man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. About 2,300 other people — and even a few camels in zoos — are quarantined.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) said through a statement on Friday that it "does not advise special procedures at points of entry, or travel or trade restrictions with regard to this [MERS] event,” there is a growing sense of public alarm about the disease. About local 1,800 schools have closed, while crowded public areas including subways and theaters have emptied out. The virus spreads through close contact with infected people but there is "no evidence of airborne transmission" according to WHO.

According to the Korean Film Council's KOBIS database, theater admissions plummeted compared to that of recent big weekend scores: the number of theatergoers on Friday went down 11.7 percent from last week, 25.2 percent from two weeks before and 28.7 from three weeks before, while Saturday's figures saw similar decreases of 19.2 percent, 23.5 percent, and 19.5 percent respectively. San Andreas (Warner Bros. Korea) nevertheless earned $7.2 million as it topped the box office.

Northern Limit Line, one of the summer's anticipated summer blockbusters that had been due in theaters on Thursday, has been set to June 24. Premieres this week for the maritime action film handled by Next Entertainment World (NEW) have also been canceled or pushed back.

The Asian Film Policy Forum, an annual international conference hosted by the Busan Film Commission slated to take place June 19-21, has also been postponed indefinitely "due to the MERS outbreak," organizers said. Last year, the local entertainment industry was similarly affected as Koreans collectively mourned a tragic ferry disaster.

"I don't feel safe going to crowded places like movie theaters," said a movie fan in her 30s who normally heads to the cinema on weekends. She opted to download something instead and has also stocked up on disposable masks. Major shopping malls have reported a sharp rise in the sales of masks, hand sanitizers and mouthwashes, and many people have been seen wearing masks on the streets of Seoul in recent days.

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