Indoor Mask Mandate to End from January 30, 2023

January 21, 2023

FINALLY!  I’m free of masks in South Korea, the last of the OECD Nations to do so…EXCEPT for hospitals and public transportation.  REALLY???

An indoor mask mandate, which has been in place for two years and three months in Korea, will end from 12:00 a.m., Jan. 30, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said Friday. But the authorities stressed that people will still be required to wear masks at high-risk facilities such as hospitals and on public transport.

The announcement, which comes after three years since Korea confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, represents a major milestone in the government’s shift in its pandemic response to living with the virus.

The health authorities assessed that it is safe to remove the mask mandate considering the recent downward trend in infections and hospitalizations, along with the stable medical capacity to treat critically ill patients. The KDCA also said the influx of cases from China is staying at a manageable level under the recently tightened travel restrictions on visitors entering from the neighboring country.

The agency noted that it has decided to scrap the mask mandate a week after the Lunar New Year holiday, which runs from Jan. 21 to 24, given the increased number of people traveling during the long weekend.

The health authorities, however, stressed that people will still be obliged to wear masks on public transport ― buses, subways, planes, ships and taxis ― as well as in hospitals, nursing homes, welfare centers for people with disabilities and pharmacies.

Whether to scrap the mask mandate in all indoor places will be decided later if the coronavirus is downgraded to the lowest level of the government’s four-tier infectious control system, the KDCA said. The disease is currently classified at Level 2.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jee Young-mee speaks during a briefing on easing of the indoor mask mandate, held at the agency's headquarters in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, Friday. Yonhap
People are seen wearing masks on the subway in Seoul, May 13, 2020. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul


Announcing the measures, KDCA head Jee Young-mee said the mask mandate may be reinstated in the event of the emergence of a potentially more deadly variant.

When asked whether the government is reviewing the seven-day isolation rule for virus carriers, she replied, “I know that there have been similar discussions recently in Hong Kong and Japan. Now that Korea has decided to drop the mask mandate, I think it is time for us to begin such discussions.”

Once the indoor mask mandate is scrapped from Jan. 30, the mandatory isolation requirement will be the only remaining virus curb here.

Medical experts viewed that the removal of the mask requirement is unlikely to have drastic impacts on the current virus situation.

“As seen in the last few months, even though the mask mandate outdoors was lifted, a lot of people are still voluntarily wearing them on the streets,” said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon Medical Center. “Regardless of the relaxed measures, I believe people will still wear masks at indoor facilities for the time being, so it seems highly unlikely that we will see a sudden uptick in infections.”

Jung said the country should now focus more on sustainable strategies as the coronavirus is expected to circulate indefinitely, bringing with it waves of varying intensity for the next few years.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jee Young-mee speaks during a briefing on easing of the indoor mask mandate, held at the agency's headquarters in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, Friday. Yonhap
A COVID-19 patient in critical condition is being transferred to a treatment facility in Yangcheon District, Seoul, March 9, 2020. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk


Nearly 30 million infections in 3 years of pandemic

Friday marks three years since the country reported its first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 20, 2020. Since then, Korea has seen a total of 29,955,366 cumulative cases, meaning that nearly 60 percent of its 52 million population have been infected with the virus at least once. A total of 33,134 deaths were reported, with the fatality rate currently standing at 0.11 percent.

Korea has so far dealt with seven major infection waves, beginning with the first one linked to a secretive religious sect known as Shincheonji, which battered the southeastern city of Daegu in February 2020. An explosive Omicron wave which swept the nation in early 2022 led to record-high daily caseloads of over 600,000.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jee Young-mee speaks during a briefing on easing of the indoor mask mandate, held at the agency's headquarters in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, Friday. Yonhap
A worker in protective gear disinfects a passenger car of a KTX train at Seoul Station, March 4, 2020. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul


The country launched the national vaccination campaign in February 2021 with the hope of reaching herd immunity. However, the emergence of new variants and waning immunity after vaccination have made the goal elusive.

In the first two years of the pandemic, along with the mask mandate, social distancing measures were used as key tools to prevent the spread of infections. Some of the most stringent measures imposed in July 2021 prohibited gatherings of more than two people after 6 p.m., while eateries and cafes were forced to close at 9 p.m. between December 2021 to February 2022.

However, since spring 2022, after the less-fatal Omicron variant took over as the dominant strain, the government began to shift its pandemic approach to living with the virus. Social distancing rules were scrapped in April and the outdoor mask requirement was ditched in September, both of which were viewed as major steps in returning to normalcy.