Many Koreans aren't ready to take off their masks yet
Monday was the first day in a year and six months that Koreans were free to walk around outside without masks.
So why did so few take advantage of it?
"I felt naked without a mask on outdoors,” said Seo Seung-joon, a 34-year-old office worker, on his way to work at Jamsil Station in southern Seoul on Monday.
Most Seoulites scurried to work with their masks on, and only few maskless citizens were visible during rush hour Monday morning at bustling Jamsil Station.
"I haven’t been infected with Covid-19 so I'm warier than people with an infection history,” Kim Yoo-na, a 37-year-old office worker, said. "I think it's harder to keep a distance between each other in subway stations, so I think I'll keep wearing a facemask."
Technically, masks are not required on outdoor subway platforms, although they are in the trains themselves.
The pattern was pretty much the same in an open park.
Only seven out of 30 people spotted at around 7 a.m. Monday on the banks of the Tancheon river in Gyeonggi were walking around without a mask.
Even so, the ending of the outdoor mask rule was a significant rollback of Korea's Covid-19 restrictions, following the lifting of limits on private gatherings and business hours from April 18. However, masks are still required for outdoor rallies, performances, or sports games attended by more than 49 people, and the indoor mask-wearing requirement remains in place, including inside buses, subways and taxis.
The legal requirement to wear a facemask had been in place in Korea since Oct. 13, 2020. Throughout the pandemic, health authorities reiterated the importance of mask-wearing, saying that they are “the most effective protection” against Covid-19 infection.
In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, masks were in short supply across the country.
In March 2020, the government restricted mask exports and introduced a so-called “public mask” rationing system, limiting the number of masks individuals could buy to two per week on designated days of the week depending on birth year.
Long lines formed in front of pharmacies nationwide and people begged for masks. With pharmacies crowded every day, mobile applications that showed information on pharmacies and real-time numbers of their available masks became popular.
Pharmacists recalled the mask rush with scorn.
“How precious a mask must have been to have a weird term like ‘public mask’ coined?” said a pharmacist surnamed Cho. “I used to distribute number tickets to up to 20 customers, and I’ve never seen such a scene like that as a pharmacist.”
Prices surged. During the peak of the shortage, masks were sold between 2,000 won to 5,000 won ($1.50 to $3.90) each on second-hand online markets. After supplies stabilized, they now sell for 300 won online.
Ms. Kim, a housewife in her 50s, saw both of her children get infected with the virus. But Kim herself was safe — and she thanks her masks.
"Looking back on not catching a cold or Covid-19 during the pandemic, I think it's thanks to the mask," Kim said.
Some women hated masks for what they did to their makeup. Others found relief in mask-wearing. "As my face was half-covered," said Miss Kim, a 37-year-old office worker, "I saved time preparing in the morning, including on makeup."
Some people expressed excitement about being allowed to take off their masks outdoors.
"I thought it was contradictory that people could take off their masks in restaurants but had to put them back on outdoors," another office worker surnamed Kim said. "I'm excited and looking forward to working out outdoors without feeling stuffy."
Health experts say it is not surprising people are reacting a bit hesitant at this moment.
“This, to some extent, was expected,” Jung Ki-suck, former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), which is now called the KDCA, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. Jung served as a member of the presidential transition team’s special panel for its Covid-19 emergency response.
“There are still many people who feel cautious about taking their masks off, and high-risk groups like people with underlying health conditions or the elderly in their 60s or older are unlikely to take off their masks,” Jung said.
Jung believes the government’s ending of the outdoor mask mandates is reasonable, although it is still “premature” to lift the mask mandate indoors especially in densely populated areas.
Korea reported 20,084 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, the first time in three months that the daily tally fell to the 20,000s, according to the KDCA.
BY CHAE HYE-SEON, SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]