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[From the Scene] Koreans remain cautious over eased masking rule

Complete lift of mask mandate likely around in May, according to COVID-19 response team

Jan. 30, 2023 - 14:59 By Lee Jung-youn
Masked citizens shop at Lotte Department Store in Seo-gu, Daejeon, Monday, despite the lifting of the indoor mask mandate at many places including department stores as of 12:00 a.m. the same day. (Yonhap)

On the first day of eased indoor masking, a 20-something worker surnamed Shin at a startup company in Seoul started her work day with her mask on as usual -- and she was not the only one.

"Eight out of 10 people in our office were wearing masks when I walked into the office. I am also one of those who intend to keep masking,” Shin said. “(Masking) became a habit that makes me feel secure. I feel more comfortable with it."

As of 12 a.m. Monday, South Korea's 27-month indoor mask mandate was lifted everywhere except for medical facilities, places designated as high risk, such as nursing homes, and public transportation. However, wearing masks seem to have become a part of many people’s lives, as the mandate has been in effect for the last two years.

On public transportation, there was no one without a mask inside the Gwanghwamun subway station on Seoul subway Line No. 5, although masks are only required inside the trains and buses but not at the subway stations and bus stops.

"I have to use it any away when I get on the train, so it's more comfortable to keep wearing it than repeatedly taking it on and off," said a 50-something Yoon Sung-hoon on his way to take the subway.

At a fitness center located near Gwanghwamun, a few people were also working out with their masks on.

"I think the ratio of people who have been wearing masks and people who haven't so far was 50-50," said a personal trainer surnamed Kim, who was wearing a KF-94 mask.

"I think it will take some time for everyone to learn that masks are no longer required at the gym. Since it is a place where you exercise, I assume that more and more people will take off their masks once they realize the mask mandate has been lifted,” Kim added.

At a convenience store near Seoul City Hall in Jongno-gu, people who were lined up to buy lunch were all wearing masks. Although the outdoor mask mandate was completely lifted about half a year ago in September, about half of the pedestrians were still wearing masks. Some kept their masks on as they entered the convenience store.

"Most of the customers come wearing masks. Wearing a mask is comfortable for me as well," said the convenience store’s part-time employee Kim Yong-joon, pointing at his dental mask. “The changed rules still have exceptions, so it’s quite confusing.”

Many cram schools and private educational institutions are taking precautions, encouraging students to protect themselves.

"Before classes started, teachers notified every student to wear masks as much as possible. They also asked students not to contact each other without masks and to keep their distance as much as possible,” said a student surnamed Han, who attends a cram school near Seoul National University Station in Gwanak-gu, Seoul.

Meanwhile, Jung Ki-seok, the head of the COVID-19 Special Response Team, said that a complete lifting of the indoor mask mandate may happen around May this year during a briefing on Monday. However, he added that it was still too early to ease the mandatory seven-day quarantine for confirmed patients.

"All decisions will be made through sufficient discussions and examination of the data," Jung said.