October 20, 2021 12:49
Korea is set to start a phased return to normal next month, but mixed messages are being sent about whether people will still have to keep wearing masks even outdoors.
Since Monday, up to eight people can gather in Seoul and 10 in other parts of the country, but masks remain mandatory even for fully vaccinated people.
Health authorities mentioned the possibility of taking them off. "If 85 percent of the population are fully vaccinated, theoretically we can be safe from coronavirus without masks." But the government soon backpedaled, saying the key word was "theoretically" and masks must continue to be worn.
In July, health authorities waived mandatory masks outdoors for people who had at least one vaccine shot, but they soon tightened the rules again as infections surged less than a week after the announcement. As infections rose over 1,000 a day, health officials made masks mandatory both indoors and outdoors regardless of vaccination.
They have never relaxed a regulation that made masks mandatory in outdoor spaces where it is difficult to keep a 2-m distance from others. Those caught not wearing a mask in places where that is mandatory can be fined up to W3 million (US$1=W1,179).
Medical experts are divided over the wisdom of forcing people to wear masks outdoors, although there are no disagreements over indoor use. After the U.K. lifted all regulations on social distancing in July, it saw a sharp resurgence in infections.
Jung Ki-suck at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital said, "If you maintain a distance of more than 2 m outdoors, there is no threat of infection whether you're vaccinated or not. If the vaccination rate is as high as 80 percent, I think not wearing a mask outdoors will be no problem."
But Eom Joong-sik at Gachon University Gil Medical Center said, "Considering the population density of Korea, there aren't many places even outdoors where it is possible to maintain more than a 2-m distance with other people. Huge crowds of hikers enjoying the autumn foliage can be seen at this time of year, so we should keep wearing masks outdoors for the time being."
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