By Daewoung Kim and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL – South Korea has loosened rules requiring masks to be worn outdoors as COVID-19 cases drop, but many people are not taking them off yet due to pervasive Omicron infections.
Health authorities lifted the mandate on Monday in the latest step to relax distancing curbs, even amid opposition from the transition team of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol which has called the decision premature.
Most people were seen wearing masks on the bustling streets in Gwanghwamun district, where government and corporate buildings are located, saying the protection makes them feel more at ease.
“I tried taking it off when I left home but then 70-80% of people I saw downtown were wearing it. I guess it’s too early to get rid of it even when we’re outside,” Lee Byung-young, 61, told Reuters.
Kim Eun-hee, 52, said she would feel safer without a mask if daily infections fall further to about 5,000.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 20,084 new COVID-19 cases for Sunday, with daily cases continuing to drop from a peak of more than 620,000 in mid-March.
People are still required to wear masks indoors, and at outdoor events with 50 attendants or more, such as at rallies, concerts and sports stadiums.
At Hyochang Park in central Seoul, around 80% of dozens of visitors were wearing masks.
Among them was Oh Ho-young, a 71-year-old neighbourhood resident, who said she was glad to be able to take a walk without a mask for the first time in two years.
“I have come here to jog for a long time, but walking without a mask now, it feels so fresh and great,” she said.
The country of 52 million people has managed to limit its total case load to 17,295,733 with 22,958 deaths, through aggressive tracing and testing as well as widespread vaccination.
Lee Geun-young, 34, who was wearing a mask, said he would stick to wearing one until COVID-19 becomes less concerning.
“I, too, miss the pre-pandemic days when we lived without a mask,” he said from Hyochang Park. “It is inconvenient, but it’s better to stay careful not only for myself but not to cause harm to others.”