South Korea drops indoor anti-COVID mask mandate, infection fears linger

Women ride on an escalator past a couple wearing masks to avoid contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a shopping mall in Seoul, South Korea, January 30, 2023. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Monday scrapped a face mask mandate for most indoor public places in a major step to loosen COVID-19 rules, but many residents opted to keep wearing coverings due to lingering concerns over infections.

The lifting of the face-covering rules in the majority of indoor locations is South Korea's latest step in easing COVID rules as new cases show signs of a slowdown. People are still required to wear the masks in public transport settings and in medical facilities.

Most restaurant owners and visitors in Seoul's bustling Gwanghwamun district, where government and corporate buildings are located, welcomed the new policy. But many citizens also said they will still wear masks with the pandemic not fully over.

"I'd thought it was kind of meaningless we had to put the masks on just to enter and leave a restaurant, so it's nice that has changed now," said Yoon Seok-jun, a 30-year-old office worker at Gwanghwamun.

Kim Jae-jin, 28, also said he was glad he could now work out at a gym without wearing a face mask. Still, he said he will continue putting on the coverings in most public facilities.

"It would be much more comfortable to run on treadmill but I am still concerned about a new respiratory disease after COVID," said Kim, an office worker.

South Korean health authorities have warned the easing of mask rules could result in a temporary surge in new cases, urging people to stay vigilant when in high-risk areas, especially for those more vulnerable to infections.

"COVID-19 isn't over yet and it looks like masks do protect me from getting cold and other diseases, so I think I'll wear them for the time being," Jeong Hye-won, a 28-year-old Seoul office worker said.

The easing of rules come about three years after South Korea reported its first outbreak of COVID infection on Jan. 20, 2020.

The country has since scrapped most of its pandemic-related precautions, but it maintains a seven-day isolation rule for those testing positive for COVID.

(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Hyeyeon Kim; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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