SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea on Friday announced an end to its indoor mask mandate, one of the country's last major pandemic restrictions.
Health authorities said as of Jan. 30, face coverings will no longer be required indoors, except in hospitals, pharmacies, and on public transportation.
The move was made because a winter spike in COVID-19 cases is on the decline and the overall pandemic situation is under control, authorities said.
"Of course, there may be some increase in cases after changing the mandatory mask rule, but given the current situation in Korea we are not expecting a major spike," said Jee Young-mee, the commissioner of the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
The announcement came exactly three years after South Korea reported its first COVID-19 case.
South Korea is the world's last remaining developed country to lift its indoor mask rule and one of just a handful of nations where masks are still expected to be worn in nearly every public setting.
In Seoul, the densely populated metropolitan area where nearly half the country lives, many residents say they disagree with lifting the mask mandate.
"It's too early," said Kim Da-young, a 30-year-old nursing student, who said she fears a spike in COVID-19 cases. "I'm still nervous about taking off my mask, so I'll keep wearing it."
According to an opinion poll released earlier this month, 66% of South Koreans will continue to wear masks even after the mandate is lifted. Several polls suggest a large percentage of South Koreans do not ever anticipate a situation in which masks are not needed.
In Seoul, masks have become an expected part of daily life - and not just in crowded indoor settings. The vast majority of residents wear masks while walking outside. Many even keep the masks on when riding alone in an automobile, jogging on an empty path, or sitting on a park bench away from others.
Many residents say there's little reason to take a mask off, if they have to put it back on to get on a bus or train. Others cite personal circumstances, such as living with older family members who are more susceptible to even mild diseases. South Korea has one of the world's oldest populations.
Seoul resident Choi Seo-hyun said she is worried about spreading COVID-19 to her 2-month-old daughter.
"Even if I go out without the baby, I think I'll still wear [the mask]," said Choi, who also cited fears about the seasonal flu.
"People have been wearing masks for a while, so I understand why they want to take them off. But wouldn't it still be a little dangerous to take it off indoors?" she asked.
Widespread mask-wearing is seen as one of the main reasons South Korea was able to prevent the level of mass COVID-19 deaths seen in other countries, while at the same time avoiding mass lockdowns.
Other factors include the country's quick and effective system of contact tracing, which has now ended, and an affordable national health care system.
South Korea has also quickly adjusted its COVID-19 policies as conditions changed. Almost all pandemic restrictions have been lifted, except for a seven-day isolation guideline for those who test positive at an official testing center.
The country has also imposed new rules for visitors from China, which has seen a massive spike in cases after abandoning its zero-COVID policy.