By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, May 2 (Yonhap) -- Most citizens on the streets of Seoul walked around with their face masks on despite the lifting of the outdoor mask mandate Monday, as many were still wary of the virus or felt awkward about going maskless or found it cumbersome to put the mask back on when going indoors.
After nearly 1 1/2 years of mandating a mask anywhere outside homes, South Korea ended the outdoor mask rule starting earlier in the day in one of the most dramatic rollbacks of the country's COVID-19 restrictions.
Mask wearing has become no longer mandatory in outdoor places, except when people attend gatherings of 50 or more or sports and cultural events with potentially larger crowds. The mask mandate for indoors and public transport, however, remains in place.
Kang Hyun-doo, a 77-year-old jogger, was still wearing a mask while working out at a park in Seoul's financial district of Yeouido, voicing concerns that easing the rule may be "premature."
"I think it is wrong to lift the outdoor mask mandate when the ratio of infected people per population is still very high," Kang said.
The omicron wave has been on the decline after the country's daily infections reached the peak of 621,178 cases on March 17. On Monday, the country's new COVID-19 cases fell to around 20,000, marking the lowest level in nearly three months.
Noting that most people he saw walking along the street still had their masks on, Kang vowed to continue to wear a mask for "some time" for the sake of himself as well as others.
Lunchtime at Seoul's central district of Gwanghwamun painted a similar picture as citizens headed out to eat together with most of them wearing face masks.
Majority of workers kept their masks on even after leaving their office buildings, with an exception of one or two who had their masks off while drinking takeaway coffee.
Kim Joon-hwan, a 37-year-old banker working in Seoul's central Euljiro area, said he would continue to wear a mask even if restrictions are eased further.
Yet, Kim -- who fully recovered after being infected with the omicron variant -- said he changed to a lighter and disposable mask.
"I am used to wearing a mask ... it has become like a habit," he said. "I am doing this for the sake of public interest."
A 38-year-old office worker surnamed Kim, meanwhile, hailed the eased rule, saying that the latest move is in line with many countries that eased mandatory measures earlier.
Not having to wear a mask was also "very liberating and freeing" for 31-year-old Park Hyun-ah who had her mask off while leaving for work in Seoul's eastern Songpa Ward.
Park said she believed most people were still wearing masks outdoors out of habit and that people will eventually take off their masks sooner or later.
South Korea had already removed most of its pandemic restrictions last month, including a 10-person limit on private gatherings, a midnight curfew at restaurants, coffee shops and bars and a ban on food consumption at movie theaters, concert halls and indoor sports venues.
Yet, the government recommends mask wearing when it is difficult for people to keep a 1-meter distance from each other at gatherings and in circumstances where lots of droplets of saliva could be expelled, such as shouting and singing.
The mask mandate is also highly recommended for those who tested positive for COVID-19 or who are at high risk of infections.
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