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S. Korea goes unmasked amid remaining concerns

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong takes off her mask during a briefing at the Sejong government complex Friday. (Yonhap)
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong takes off her mask during a briefing at the Sejong government complex Friday. (Yonhap)
The government policy to lift the outdoor face mask mandate was to officially in Monday, with some raising concern about the new measure’s potential effects on spreading of COVID-19 infections.

Starting Monday, masks are only mandated indoors and during outdoor activities of events that carry a high risk of infection, such as gatherings of 50 or more people, concerts and sports games. All forms of public transportation and enclosed facilities require masks, but locations like above-ground subway platforms that are not surrounded by walls and doors are categorized as outdoors.

Masks with stronger-filters -- KF80 or higher -- are recommended for places like nursing homes that are deemed more vulnerable to COVID-19, or crowded facilities with low ventilation. 

While it is no longer illegal to not wear masks outdoors, authorities say they still “strongly recommend” wearing face masks around in the presence of those with COVID-19 symptoms, high-risk groups for the disease such as senior citizens and unvaccinated people, and when attending crowded places such as theme parks and waterf one meter from other people for at least 15 minutes.

“The new policy is to restrict the areas or situations (where not wearing mask) would be fined. This does not mean the practice of wearing masks outdoors is done away with altogether, and each citizen must practice (mask wearing) according to different situations,” the government said.

The new policy was announced last week by Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum as part of a string of measures to return the country to normalcy, 566 days since the government issued its outdoor mask mandate on Oct. 13, 2020. On April 18, the government lifted all forms of social distancing such as limitation of business hours and restricting the number of participants in social gatherings.

But Moon Jae-in administration’s announcement was met with concerns that it may be “premature” to implement the policy. The transition team for the President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol expressed regrets about the plan, saying it “cannot help but question” if the governments had made the decision based on scientific evidence.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the chief of the transition committee, had suggested that deciding on whether or not to lift the mask mandate should have taken place in late May. But Lee Jun-seok, the leader of Yoon’s People Power Party, sang a different tune on Saturday by saying that he found the government’s measure appropriate.

A recent survey by local job-search portal Incruit showed that the majority of the people are planning to wear masks, even after the government abolishes compulsory mask-wearing. Of the 1,217 people who participated in the survey, 51.8 percent said they will “keep wearing masks until they feel safe from the COVID-19,” while another 26.3 percent said that they will “keep wearing masks even after the pandemic ends.”

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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