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Current, incoming administrations clash over lifting mask mandate

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Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum speaks at a COVID-19 response meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, at the Government Complex Seoul, Friday. Joint Press Corps
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum speaks at a COVID-19 response meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, at the Government Complex Seoul, Friday. Joint Press Corps

Korea to lift outdoor mask mandate on Monday

By Jung Da-min

The current and incoming administrations are clashing over the former's decision to lift the outdoor mask mandate on Monday.

Presiding over a COVID-19 response meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, Friday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum announced new guidelines for wearing masks including the lifting of the outdoor mask mandate.

"Some raised concerns over this decision, but we have concluded that we cannot disregard the difficulties and inconveniences people have been going through, while not being able to take off their masks even when they walk alone or are on a family outing," Kim said, adding that the quarantine and medical situation of the country have been stabilized.

Citing the cases of France, New Zealand and Singapore, Kim said those countries lifted their mask mandates about a month after Omicron variant infections peaked there and their COVID-19 cases continued to decrease.

Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the presidential transition committee who also leads a subcommittee in charge of COVID-19 response, answers reporters' questions at the transition committee's headquarters in Seoul's Jongno District, Friday. Joint Press Corps
Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the presidential transition committee who also leads a subcommittee in charge of COVID-19 response, answers reporters' questions at the transition committee's headquarters in Seoul's Jongno District, Friday. Joint Press Corps

In response, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol's transition committee said the government decision was premature, and it should have waited at least two more weeks to see if the virus situation continues to stabilize.

Ahn Cheol-soo, chairman of the presidential transition committee who also leads a subcommittee in charge of COVID-19 response, said he was concerned that the current Moon Jae-in administration might be trying to give itself credit for successfully managing the pandemic crisis.

"Today, the country reported over 50,000 new virus cases and over 100 deaths. It is unclear with what scientific grounds the government can lift the outdoor mask mandate," Ahn told reporters at the transition committee's headquarters in central Seoul, Friday.

The doctor-turned-politician also referred to "the COVID-19 emergency response roadmap for 100 days" which he had announced as the leader of the COVID-19 subcommittee on Wednesday, which stated that the country should decide whether to lift the mask mandate in late May after seeing if COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to drop until then.

Hong Kyeong-hee, a deputy spokesman of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol's transition committee, speaks during a press briefing at the committee's headquarters in Seoul's Jongno District, Friday. Joint Press Corps
Hong Kyeong-hee, a deputy spokesman of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol's transition committee, speaks during a press briefing at the committee's headquarters in Seoul's Jongno District, Friday. Joint Press Corps

Hong Kyeong-hee, a deputy spokesman of Yoon's transition committee, also criticized the government decision to lift the outdoor mask mandate, saying it came too early. The spokesman said there were no consultations between the government and the committee regarding the decision.

"The COVID-19 response subcommittee's recommendation made through the 100-Day COVID-19 Emergency Response Roadmap was based on many experts who have been at the forefront in fighting the virus," Hong said.

"We ask what policy measures the government has prepared in case the virus spread situation deteriorates and the virus cases increase again," he said.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), the country reported 50,586 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, remaining in the 50,000s for the second day straight. The KDCA reported 136 more COVID-19 deaths, raising the total death toll to 22,724.

This photo, taken at street in Myeong-dong area in downtown Seoul, Friday, shows a mask held by a person. Earlier the same day, the government announced it will lift the outdoor mask mandate on Monday. Yonhap
This photo, taken at street in Myeong-dong area in downtown Seoul, Friday, shows a mask held by a person. Earlier the same day, the government announced it will lift the outdoor mask mandate on Monday. Yonhap

The lifting of the outdoor mask mandate came 566 days after its introduction in October 2020. However, masks are still mandated when 50 or more people gather and at multiuse facilities used by over 50 people, such as theaters and sports stadiums. Those with COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever or cough are strongly recommended to wear masks under the government guidelines.

Under the current COVID-19 measures, people are required to wear masks when going outside unless they keep at least two meters away from others. Those who break the outdoor mask mandate could be fined 100,000 won ($78).

Regarding the government decision to lift the outdoor mask mandate, KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a Friday briefing that the decision was not based on political considerations nor a declaration of a virus-free situation.

"The decision was made in consideration of the recent situation in which the virus cases have been decreasing for six weeks and the raised immunity level of people here thanks to the vaccines or because they already caught the virus," Jeong said. "We also considered research reports which said the level of danger is 18.7 times higher indoors than in the open air."

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong takes off her mask to speak during a briefing at the Government Complex Sejong, Friday. Yonhap
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong takes off her mask to speak during a briefing at the Government Complex Sejong, Friday. Yonhap



Jung Da-min damin.jung@koreatimes.co.kr


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