A debate has been reignited over lifting indoor mask mandates as cautious attitudes toward COVID-19 infection is steadily being replaced by public complacency, but authorities and experts have offer mixed views about easing mandatory masking.
The municipal government of Daejeon sent an official notification to the government’s COVID-19 response headquarters Sunday, saying it will lift the indoor mask mandates from next year through its own administrative order unless the central government lifts it by Dec. 15.
South Chungcheong Province also said it would support the move by pushing for an independent step to lift the mandate, sparking dispute as to whether the central government should consider lifting the restriction that has long been regarded as a hassle yet offering significant protection against coronavirus infection.
Government steps against potentially lethal viruses such as imposing or lifting mandatory rules including indoor mask mandates are controlled by top officials at the central government and provincial administrations. Daejeon and South Chungcheong Province hold their own authority to adjust the mandates, but it is also worrisome that only a couple of local administrations would move in a different direction.
The key logic behind lifting indoor mask mandates allegedly involves the reality in which most people do not wear masks at restaurants and cafes, rendering mask mandates meaningless. The view that masks hinder children’s emotional and language development is another aspect that supports the lifting of the regulation.
In addition, the US, France, the Netherlands, Hungary and other countries have already lifted mask mandates for all places -- a trend likely to pressure other nations to follow suit.
But not all countries have opted for no masking policy. Germany, for instance, maintains mask mandates for medical and social welfare facilities, as well as public transportation. Japan has also maintained indoor mask mandates.
The government’s official position is unsurprisingly conservative. It says more consideration is necessary before lifting indoor mask mandates and it is opposed to a local administration easing the restriction on its own initiative.
Jung Ki-suck, who chairs the Special Response Center of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, said at a briefing Monday that there is no meaningful change that warrants the lifting of indoor mask mandates yet. Jung said if indoor mask mandates are lifted, the number of new COVID-19 cases and related deaths among those at high risk will certainly go up.
The spread of COVID-19 has not reached a stagnant phase yet, Jung said, adding that there are many infected patients who do not report their cases to authorities.
Official figures show it is still premature to conclude that COVID-19 is receding. The country’s new COVID-19 cases jumped Tuesday to 77,604, hitting the highest level since Sept. 14, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
The KDCA said the country added 24 COVID-19 deaths and the number of critically ill patients was 443 -- figures that offer no assurance about lower infection risks. In fact, the coronavirus is generating more cases in recent weeks as people tend to spend more time indoors, where infection risks are higher due to colder weather.
The spread of influenza is another reason authorities cite to oppose the lifting of indoor mask mandates. “When mask mandates are lifted at schools, a huge wave of influenza infections, as well as the spread of COVID-19, will follow,” Jung said.
With new cases on the rise, more debate and exchanges of information about the impact of indoor mask mandates based on scientific data are needed.
Against this backdrop, an arbitrary move of a local administration is feared to generate confusion among the public about the need for indoor mask mandates, whose preventive effect remains powerful against a possible winter surge of virus infections.
To prevent a hasty and potentially damaging decision, the government should push for a consistent mask mandate policy until it draws up specific conditions for shifting from legal obligations on masking to recommendations.