What Is the Point of Wearing Masks Outdoors?

  • By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Min-cheol

    September 03, 2021 13:19

    You can spot officials cracking down on people without masks each time you go on a walk to Mt. Nam or the Han River Park. They seem to materialize out of nowhere when there are big crowds shouting at people to wear their masks properly. That means few people go without masks even in outdoor venues, and people who walk around without their masks attract dirty looks. In July, the government allowed people who had at least one coronavirus vaccine shot to take off their face masks outdoors, but a surge in Delta variant infections prompted them to backpedal.

    A year and eight months have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but there is still a lot about the virus that is unknown. One of the certainties is that wearing face masks indoors significantly lowers the chances of infection, and few people question it. Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said recently, "Wearing face masks indoors is probably the quarantine guideline we must abide by the longest."

    But why wear them outdoors in places that are not crowded? A team of researchers led by Martin Bazant at MIT studied indoor infection risks and found that maintaining a 1-m distance between people outdoors is enough to remain safe without face masks. At present, few countries crack down on people who wear no masks outdoors. Since last month, the U.K. eased most restrictions and made it no longer mandatory to wear masks even indoors, while France and Germany are the only European countries that still require them.

    Even in Korea it is not actually mandatory to wear masks outdoors, and they only have to be worn in crowded areas where it is impossible to maintain a 2-m distance between people. But the regulations are vague and provincial governments can adjust them, which only adds to the confusion.

    Of course health authorities want to protect themselves from criticism by maintaining the strictest possible lockdown. But rules without scientific evidence protect nobody but bureaucrats. At present, 57.4 percent of Korea's 52 million people have received their first vaccine shots and 31.7 percent are fully vaccinated. Unnecessary rules that are not based on science only increase the pain and inconvenience of the public. That is also something the government must consider. 

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