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South Korea to relax outdoor mask mandate as Covid-19 slows

A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near the flowers at a park in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)
A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near the flowers at a park in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

South Korea will ease its outdoor mask mandate starting from next week as Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations continue to decline.

Starting from Monday, people will only be required to wear a mask outdoors when participating in gatherings of more than 50 people or attending sports and cultural events with potentially large crowds, health authorities said in a briefing on Friday.

The mask mandate for indoors and public transport will also remain in place.

Health workers have diagnosed a daily average of around 63,000 new cases in the past seven days, including 50,568 in the latest 24 hours — a drop-off from mid-March when the country was reporting hundreds of thousands of infections each day at the height of an Omicron-driven surge.

People relax at a park in Seoul
People relax at a park in Seoul (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

As hospitalisations and deaths slow, less than 30% of the country’s 2,800 intensive care units designated for Covid-19 patients are occupied.

South Korea removed most of its pandemic restrictions earlier this month, including a 10-person limit on private social gatherings, a midnight curfew at restaurants, coffee shops and bars and a ban on food consumption at movie theatres, concert halls and indoor sports venues.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said the weeks-long decline in infections even with the easing of social distancing suggests that the country’s outbreak is stabilising.

She said health authorities concluded it is safe to relax the mask mandate because the risk of transmissions is much lower outdoors and other countries did not see a meaningful increase in infections after easing similar restrictions.

Ms Jeong recommended that people still wear masks outdoors if they have symptoms like coughs or fever or are in crowded spaces like theme parks where it’s hard for them to maintain at least a three-foot distance from others.

However, the office of President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office on May 10, raised concern that the move to ease the mask mandate could be premature.

Hong Kyung-hee, spokesman of Mr Yoon’s presidential transition committee, said the committee had recommended the government to monitor virus trends for at least another month before deciding whether to relax the mask mandate.

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