[WHY] Mandates are gone, so what's with all the masks still?

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[WHY] Mandates are gone, so what's with all the masks still?

A pedestrian walks half-masked in the streets of Myeong-dong in Jung District, central Seoul, on March 29. [NEWS1]

A pedestrian walks half-masked in the streets of Myeong-dong in Jung District, central Seoul, on March 29. [NEWS1]

 
A customer walks into a cafe in Seoul, face mask on. She finds a table and takes it off, puts it on again when approaching the cashier and then takes it off again when she returns to her seat with her cup of coffee.
 
Similar clockwork-like motions can be commonly spotted in Korea, on subways, buses, schools and in other public places, even though it’s April and the Covid mask mandates are long gone.
 
Korea's indoor mask mandate was all but completely lifted on March 20, but now, three weeks into their freedom, many Koreans still refuse to take off their face coverings. The only places that require masks now are medical facilities such as hospitals, nursing facilities and standalone pharmacies.
 
But still, people choose to keep their masks on, mainly because they want to but also because other people still do.
 
Ranging from workplace perks to health issues and cosmetic habits, Korean people have grown so accustomed to their face masks that it has become difficult to take them off so suddenly.
 
Experts wager that it may not be long before people start taking them off, but, at least for now, the mask-wearing inertia remains strong and real.
 
 
People pass by a notice at a subway station in Seoul that informs of the mask mandate lift in public transportation on March 19, a day before the change. [JOONGANG ILBO]

People pass by a notice at a subway station in Seoul that informs of the mask mandate lift in public transportation on March 19, a day before the change. [JOONGANG ILBO]



So why are people still wearing masks?
 
Simply put, people have grown so used to them that they feel "naked without them."
 
“Telling people to take off their masks is like telling them to take their clothes off,” said Kwak Geum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University, pointing out that both are worn directly above the skin. People are inclined to maintain the status quo, according to the professor, and such inclination makes people want to evade abrupt changes.
 
Humans, as social beings, also have the tendency to mirror other people, and this trait is more conspicuous among the younger population who are more susceptible to the social environment, Prof. Kwak added.
 
The internet is filled with youngsters admitting that they want to still keep them on for their own reasons.
 
In a YouTube video starring four teenagers, the cast gives accounts of their classmates who would go far to not even have a bite of their lunch in order to keep their masks on. One of the cast members said many students are reluctant to remove masks in front of others, because they are afraid of “disappointing” their peers.
 
“People unconsciously picture an ideal face when they see a half-covered face,” said the psychology professor. In most cases, the actual face will not meet up to the imagination, and this experience makes people unknowingly want to avoid being the subject of disappointment themselves.
 
When the video went viral in other online communities, many adults concurred.
 
“At their age, reputation is important. I might have done the same if I was in their shoes,” “Puberty sways you. They’ve been wearing masks for several years, so it’s normal for some to be so sensitive,” read some of the posts.
 
 
A cast member in a YouTube video tells viewers that there are ″very many″ students who would skip lunch to keep their masks on. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A cast member in a YouTube video tells viewers that there are ″very many″ students who would skip lunch to keep their masks on. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
Why do the staff at cafes, shopping malls and convenience stores still wear masks?
 
Aside from the automated face perfection, some say wearing a mask has its perks.
 
“I can care less about how my facial expressions would appear to customers,” said Choi Yoo-joo, a 23-year-old who works as a part-timer at a cafe in Bucheon, Gyeonggi. “Putting on a smile throughout an entire shift can be challenging at times.”
 
Going into her fourth year as a part-timer in the service sector, she claims to be a pro at making smiley eyes. Before the mask mandate, some of her previous employers had instructed her to receive customers with a big smile, but now Choi and her fellow staff can get by with engaging only the upper half of their facial muscles.
 
“Plus, it’s about sanitary reasons as well. We don’t have to worry about spitting on customers when we take their orders or on the food we make.”
 
She thinks those who work in the food service industry should be given at least some sort of mouth cover for the sake of food hygiene.
 
“I would be annoyed to see a chef or barista make my food without any cover, because I know how easy it is to spit on someone’s drink."
 
 
An employee wears a mask during work at a convenience store in central Seoul on March 28. [NEWS1]

An employee wears a mask during work at a convenience store in central Seoul on March 28. [NEWS1]

 
According to a survey by part-time job hiring platform Alba Cheonguk in February, 89.6 percent of 1,567 part-timers surveyed still chose to wear a mask during work hours.
 
Like Choi, 40 percent of these part-timers said they keep it on for hygiene and disease prevention purposes. The facial cover-up function of masks was cited as another popular reason by 34 percent of respondents.
 
Eight out of 10 part-timers surveyed thought wearing a mask had more benefits than not wearing one. Hygiene topped as the main reason once again at 56.8 percent, followed by avoiding customer complaints related to masks and convenience in controlling facial expressions.
 
 
Is the fear of Covid-19 still in the air?
 
Yes, and rightfully so.
 
“There are thousands of Covid-19 cases every day — it’s a stretch to say that the coronavirus is completely gone,” said Jang Seon-ock, a 54-year-old who works at a nursing home in Daegu.
 
Jang is reminded of the disease’s hazards every now and then when she sees the elderly suffer the aftermath of Covid. She is only required to wear a mask at her workplace, but she puts one on the moment she leaves her house.
 
“I advise my family to wear masks because masks are the first line of defense against not only Covid, but also many other respiratory diseases,” the caregiver added. 
 
According to Jang, one can never be too safe, especially between winter and spring when inter-seasonal respiratory problems like the flu are prevalent.
 
 
A patient at a nursing hospital in Gwangju meets with a visitor in October last year. [NEWS1]

A patient at a nursing hospital in Gwangju meets with a visitor in October last year. [NEWS1]

 
She had tested positive for the virus in August last year, when the symptoms were reported to be not as severe as they were in the early Covid-19 variations in 2020. But for her, it meant several days in bed eating rice porridge.
 
“Everyone has different symptoms. For some, it’s just a scratchy throat; for others, it can be the full package of high fever, sore throat, headache and muscle pain.”
 
Jang plans to keep wearing masks as long as she works as a caregiver, because she may carry a virus that she’s immune to, but others are not. Nursing homes are one of the few remaining facilities where the indoor mandate still prevails.
 
The same health-related reasons prompt many other Koreans to wear a mask, according to a survey by Nownsurvey. Of the 630 people who were against the mandate lift surveyed between January and March, 92.3 percent said they oppose the change because they think Covid is still prevalent.
 
 
Poor air quality leads people to mask up
 
Kim Kyu-hyun is one of those people who masked up from time to time even before the pandemic to block out fine dust. The 28-year-old man believes that wearing a mask is the cheapest and most convenient way to filter at least some of the micro-particles.
 
“I read about how dangerous fine dust and ultrafine dust can be when they accumulate in the human body,” Kim said. “Fine dust raises the chance of cardiovascular and brain diseases and is categorized as a Group 1 carcinogen agent by the World Health Organization.”
 
 
An electronic display shows the air quality rated "poor" in Seoul on March 24. [NEWS1]

An electronic display shows the air quality rated "poor" in Seoul on March 24. [NEWS1]

 
Group 1 agents are substances that have “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans,” according to the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
 
“I’ve been checking the air quality rating since 2018 and wear a KF-94 mask whenever it was worse than ‘moderate.’”
 
Kim believes people overlook the risk of being exposed to fine dust, and claims he is proud to be a “dustphobe.”
 
“People are concerned about a magnitude 3 earthquake when they breathe in tiny particles of heavy metals on a daily basis,” he said, claiming that he can almost feel the pollution in his body when the sky is gray and air is stuffy.
 
E-commerce operator TMON said the number of masks sold between March 20 and 23, when dust levels were high, rose 20 percent from between March 16 and March 19. WeMakePrice sold 8.91 percent more, and SSG.com sold 30 percent more over the same period.
 
Poor air quality is reported to have played a role in the rise, according to online retailers.
 
The air quality rating remained “poor” and “moderate” for the first week of the mandate lift, occasionally bouncing up to “very poor.” Springtime in Korea has been a mask season even before Covid, with yellow dust from deserts in Mongolia and China coating the peninsula.
 
 
Most passengers wear masks on a metro in Seoul on March 20. [YONHAP]

Most passengers wear masks on a metro in Seoul on March 20. [YONHAP]

 
Last but not least: habits
 
For others, it’s not about the safety of themselves or their peers. It has simply become a habit.
 
Masks have become just as much of a must-have item for going out as a smartphone and Bluetooth earbuds, for Nam Hyun-soo, a 32-year-old living in Gwangjin District, eastern Seoul.
 
“It feels awkward to not have a mask with me — as if I’m wearing shoes without socks,” he said, mentioning that he felt a bit “naked” during lunch on March 20, when his company removed all partitions from the cafeteria.
 
“It took several weeks to have people properly wear masks, so I guess it’s natural to take a while to reverse that.”
 
Nam says his leftover mask supplies are delaying his transition back to the no-mask days. He still has a full carton of surgical masks remaining from his bulk purchase last summer.
 
“I’ll probably just keep bringing one along until my supply runs out, which will probably be around early June when it gets too hot and stuffy to have it on anyway,” Nam said.
 
He thinks the rapidly rising temperatures will "sweat off" peoples' masks.
 
Prof. Kwak said as well that warm temperatures will play a key role in expediting people to consider taking their masks off.
 
 
People attend a cherry blossom festival in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, on March 30. [YONHAP]

People attend a cherry blossom festival in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, on March 30. [YONHAP]

 
Psychiatrists also ask people to be patient.
 
“It’s only natural for people to feel anxious during the transition back to a no-mask life,” psychiatrist Woo Kyung-soo wrote in Psychiatric News on March 15.
 
"We need to be aware of the fact that some people may find it uneasy and perplexing to take their masks off after three years, as if they are suddenly put under surveillance," Dr. Woo added.
 
“Let us steadily wait for a setting where anyone can feel secure and snug even without a mask.”
 
Another psychiatrist also wrote in February that society should encourage individuals to have confidence in the mask-wearing choices they make and permit that of others, whatever the reason may be.
 

BY SOHN DONG-JOO [sohn.dongjoo@joongang.co.kr]
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