SEOUL — Jeon Han-sol is ready to take her mask off. And after more than two years of mandates, she’s finally able to do it.
South Korea, one of the world’s last holdouts for mask mandates, dropped its requirement for most indoor facilities except hospitals and public transit on Monday. The move signals an end to the country’s long-stringent coronavirus measures, as parts of Asia begin moving the dial toward a more relaxed pandemic approach.
Unlike in the United States, masks are not a source of political divisions in South Korea — they’re a cultural norm. And though some Koreans, like Jeon, are elated to exercise their newfound freedom, many are also indifferent to it.
“It will not be easy for Koreans to take off their masks, which they have already become familiar with,” said Hwang Seung-sik, an associate professor at the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health. “More than a decade ago, wearing a mask began to be regarded as a tool to protect oneself from air pollution … and some even wore it as a fashion item.”
As people waded through the country’s capital in winter coats Monday morning, most of them continued to wear masks on the street, as well as inside coffee shops, grocery stores and subway stations. At a gym near Yonsei University, however, at least a dozen people took their masks off to exercise, with an old sign reminding them of the mask mandate still lingering on the wall.
“I’m so happy. My workout feels so much better,” said Yang Dong-hoon, a 20-year-old college student. “I was kind of worried that if nobody else took off their masks it would be awkward for me to be the only one, but I’m happy that other people are enjoying the no-mask rules.” About 65 percent of South Korean adults preferred to keep an indoor mask mandate, according to a Gallup Korea survey of about 1,000 people conducted earlier this month, and 76 percent said they continued to wear one outside after the outdoor mandate was dropped in September.
Seo Jeong-su, a 55-year-old worker at a rice cake shop in Seoul, had her mask hanging around her neck as she worked dough in her storefront window Monday morning with her colleague. But as she talked, she began fiddling with it and intermittently using it to shield her mouth.
“I will keep wearing a mask. … I have a giant box of masks in my house, so what am I supposed to do?” she said. She added that she’s not worried about getting seriously ill from covid, but she still feels the obligation to wear it for the sake of protecting others.
“It’s not really an end to the mandate,” she said.
Jeong Dong-joon, a 42-year-old photo studio photographer in Seoul, said that he will keep wearing his mask because the pandemic is not “formally” over. His older co-worker, a receptionist, sat at her desk without one as the two talked.
“I’m not very worried about covid, but I may as well just keep masking inside,” Jeong said. “It’s not really that uncomfortable to wear.”
South Korea was one of the first countries to report a covid outbreak in early 2020, and its government moved swiftly to mobilize testing and social distancing measures, at one point restricting all gatherings to no more than two people. The country has slowly loosened its restrictions over the past year, and masking at times has become arbitrary.
“If you go to a restaurant, cafe or movie theater, you only wear the mask until you sit down, and then you don’t use it after that,” Jeon, the nurse, said.
Other parts of Asia have also begun to relax masking rules: Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam have forgone most of their mask requirements. Japan only recommends wearing a mask, but they’ve become so common that they’ve earned the name “kao pantsu,” which translates to “face pants.”
In some of the world’s last holdouts, Hong Kong still requires masks everywhere in public, while Taiwan requires them indoors. Many people still support them.
In South Korea, masks are more broadly supported than the vaccine itself, though research shows vaccination significantly increases protection against hospitalizations and death. Only about 28 percent of South Koreans said the vaccine was a “must do,” according to a recent Gallup Korea poll, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of the population has received at least one dose.
Hwang, an epidemiologist, attributes this to vaccine skepticism as well as the pre-pandemic “cultural phenomenon” of wearing masks.
For most Koreans, masks are considered inexpensive, and there is “no particular repulsion” to them, he said. “But vaccinations are less supported than wearing masks because there are people who are afraid of side effects.”
Lee Ju-yong, 29, said that he doesn’t worry about the pandemic too much these days. But, he said, “If someone coughs next to me without a mask on, I think I’ll want to run away.”
Joyce Lau in Hong Kong and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.