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South Korea on Thursday, April 28, 2022, reported 50,568 new COVID-19 cases, down from 81,058 a week prior, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

South Korea on Thursday, April 28, 2022, reported 50,568 new COVID-19 cases, down from 81,058 a week prior, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. (Akifumi Ishikawa/Stars and Stripes)

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CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — South Koreans may remove their pandemic masks while outdoors starting Monday as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the country continues to fall.

The mask mandate may be disappearing but the Ministry of Health and Welfare “actively advises” people to continue wearing them, according to a ministry statement Friday.

The change does not affect the country’s indoor mask policy at businesses and public buildings; people are still required to wear them in these areas unless they are eating and drinking. Masks also remain mandatory in groups of 50 or more people, such as a sports arena or a rally.

The ministry also advised that individuals at a high risk of infection, such as seniors, and those with COVID-19 symptoms ought to continue wearing masks outdoors.

South Korea's response to the pandemic was “surely stabilizing,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday during a briefing at the Seoul Government Complex.

Kim acknowledged concerns about the new policy but said health officials determined that “the government cannot continue to turn away from the frustration and inconvenience from people who are not able to take off their masks when walking alone or even during family picnics.”

South Korea, one of the first COVID-19 hotspots of the pandemic, imposed a mandatory mask policy in October 2020.

Nearly two years and over 17 million confirmed cases later, the mask mandate and a host of other restrictions are being lifted.

On Monday, the Health and Welfare Ministry allowed eating and drinking in enclosed, public areas, such as movie theaters, gyms and buses. A week prior, the ministry eased its business curfew, the 10-person cap on gatherings and the weeklong quarantine for people who test positive for COVID-19.

South Korea on Thursday reported 50,568 new COVID-19 cases, down from 81,058 a week prior, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. About 88% of the country’s 51 million people have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 65% received a vaccine booster shot.

U.S. Forces Korea dropped the mask mandate on its installations on April 25. USFK, responsible for roughly 28,500 troops, lifted the order as its new case numbers declined for a fourth consecutive week.

However, individual commanders and building managers may impose their own mask requirements on a case-by-case basis.

USFK counted 252 new COVID-19 infections for the seven-day period ending Monday, down from 326 new cases for the week ending April 18.

The command lowered its health protection level on April 21 and allowed its fully vaccinated population to visit adults-only businesses, bars, clubs, karaoke bars and saunas, which were previously restricted for most of the pandemic.

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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