South Korea said Friday (April 29) it will lift its outdoor mask mandate next week in response to a steady drop in COVID-19 cases after an Omicron-fuelled surge.
The announcement comes after Seoul dropped almost all other social-distancing measures earlier this month, ending two years of strict requirements that put a strain on the country's small businesses.
From Monday, residents will no longer be required to wear facemasks outdoors unless attending an event with more than 50 participants, health authorities said.
"As social-distancing measures are lifted and the mask mandate is being adjusted, people are increasingly returning to their normal lives," Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), told reporters.
South Korea's incoming administration, headed by conservative president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, on Friday criticized the decision to end the mask mandate as "premature", questioning if it had been based solely on "virus prevention measures."
Ahn Cheol-soo, chief of Yoon's transition team, had previously said the new government planned to make a call on the mandate in May.
But the KDCA's Jeong said the decision was rooted in data, explaining that there had been a "steady decrease" in COVID-19 cases for the past six weeks.
"The number of new critically ill patients is also decreasing," she said, adding hospitals had enough beds to treat new inpatients.
"Everyone agrees that lifting of the outdoor mask mandate is necessary. However... there may be differences in views on its timing or method," she said.
South Korea reported 50,568 new coronavirus cases on Friday, well down from the peak of more than 620,000 a day in mid-March.
More than 86% of South Korea's 51 million people have been fully vaccinated, with the majority also receiving a booster shot.
The country also has a 0.13% fatality rate, one of the world's lowest.
South Korea's Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the government had "fierce discussions" before making the decision to lift the mask mandate.
The sharp decline in new cases, coupled with growing public frustration with ongoing restrictions, prompted the government's move, he said.
"We decided that we could not continue ignoring the frustration and inconvenience of the people who couldn't take off their masks even when taking a walk alone or going on a family outing," he added.
"We believed in the maturity of our people who have cooperated with the virus restrictions for the last two years." (AFP)