The Korea Herald


South Korea may waive indoor masking, but not for good

By Kim Arin

Published : Dec. 22, 2022 - 15:22

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A sign at an exhibition in Seoul on Thursday asks visitors to keep their face masks on. (Yonhap) A sign at an exhibition in Seoul on Thursday asks visitors to keep their face masks on. (Yonhap)

South Korea may do away with the indoor masking rule if metrics like the COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates fall. Even then, masking will not be gone for good, and could be reinstated should those metrics worsen.

Ruling People Power Party leaders met with top public health officials Thursday, a day before the government COVID-19 response headquarters is set to announce how the rule on masking indoors may change.

At Thursday’s meeting, public health officials laid down the possible conditions for pausing the indoor masking rule, which has been in place for well over two years.

“Our public health authorities said they plan to switch the indoor mask wearing requirement to a recommendation if certain conditions are met,” Rep. Sung Il-jong, the chair of the party’s policy committee, told reporters following the meeting.

“We were briefed by our public health authorities, and there was an agreement that we must first see signs of a decline in COVID-19 trends, especially hospitalizations and deaths, for a sustained period of time in order for indoor masking to be removed.”

Public transit, nursing homes and hospitals would continue to require masks, as they are deemed to be high-risk and are populated by vulnerable groups, he said, adding that at the current stage the discussion on any relaxation in the rules only concern people who are healthy.

Sung said he believed some change in the masking rule “could be due.” South Koreans “already practice a high level of personal hygiene and they know how to deal with this,” he said. Recent surveys showed nearly half of adults saying they would stick to wearing masks indoors even after it is no longer required.

“We have many examples in other countries where masks are not enforced. I think South Korea can afford to be more confident and take off masks,” he said.

He added that he was not sure when that point might be. “COVID-19 cases are rising at the moment so we have to wait and see that we’re not headed toward a large peak,” he said.

He made clear that whatever change that may come would likely only be temporary.

“The virus continues to change into new variants and we don’t know what’s going to happen with the next one,” he said. "That’s what our scientists will be looking into. Masks will need to return if the situation warrants it."

As for the seven-day isolation requirement for patients with COVID-19, he said the party has also asked public health officials to assess whether it could be shortened. Earlier this week, the health minister has said that ending isolation would have to wait until after winter.