End of mask mandate leaves Korea befuddled and bemused

손동주 입력 2023. 1. 30. 13:36 수정 2023. 2. 1. 18:08
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The indoor mask mandate in Korea was lifted at 12:00 a.m. Monday, 840 days after it was first put into place.
Students wear masks during class in a school in Ulsan, southern Korea, on Monday. Korea lifted its indoor mask mandate Monday except at hospitals, pharmacies, and on public transportations. [YONHAP]

The indoor mask mandate in Korea was lifted at 12:00 a.m. Monday, 840 days after it was first put into place.

It remains in effect at hospitals, pharmacies and on public transportation, but most people kept wearing masks at other indoor facilities such as cafes and offices.

The scrapping of the last remaining pandemic restriction comes as the number of new daily cases continues to decline. On Monday, the country reported 7,416 new Covid-19 cases, the fewest in about seven months.

Like most other people, Kim Yoo-jeong is excited the omicron variant is on the decline. Yet, she is not yet ready to let her guard down.

"I am sure that the government decided to revise the rule as it is certain about managing the virus situation. But I still want to wear the mask for the sake of myself," Kim said as she was waiting in line for her latte at a Starbucks store in Seocho District, southern Seoul.

Just like previous days, most of the people in the store masked up while waiting, except for when they were drinking or eating.

Most commuters also kept their face masks in train stations and even outside transportation hubs.

"It feels a little awkward to take off my mask," Chang Joon-won said as he was coming out of a subway entrance in Seoul's Seocho District to head for work. "It has become like a part of me."

All 30 people waiting for a subway in eastern Seoul's Dongdaemun Station wore masks.

"It is uncomfortable, but I will continue to wear a mask as the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet ended," Kim Soo-ah said.

Teachers, students and school staff showed mixed emotions about the end of the school mask mandate, as most students opted to wear face coverings while going to school.

"Nothing will immediately change," Park Soon-ae, a mother of two daughters, said as she escorted her kids to a school in Dongjak District, southern Seoul.

Over a 30-minute period, only one student showed up at school without a mask.

"A notice was given to bring a face mask or even wear a mask when coming to school, as a situation requiring masking may arise," Han Cheol-soo, the school's principal, said.

The end of the mandate also created some confusion.

"I was aware that the mask mandate was lifted today, but I was not aware that wearing a mask inside of an elevator was changed to advisory," said Park Eun-hyeok as he was getting out of an elevator of Dongmyo Station in central Seoul.

Most of the employees at Jeju International Airport on the southern resort island of Jeju were masked up.

"We are recommending masks, but the decision is left to the discretion of the employee," said an airport official, asking not to be named, adding he is still awaiting the exact guidelines on the rules in places such as pharmacies located inside of an airport.

BY SOHN DONG-JOO [sohn.dongjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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