April 30—7am—Going mask-free outdoors (for the most part)
Deaths: 121 | Severely ill: 624 | Hospitalized: 595 | New cases: 62,809
(Seven-day averages as reported on Apr 29, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare )
As case numbers continue to fall, along with the numbers of deaths and hospital admissions, the mask mandate in South Korea is coming to an end. Technically, people have already been free to remove their masks outdoors as long as they have made sure to keep a two-meter distance from others. But this has been difficult in practice in highly dense metropolitan areas, so people have generally kept their masks on. Now though, effective May 2, the government is largely leaving outdoors decisions to individuals. Masks are no longer obligatory outdoors except at protests, sporting events, and concerts gathering 50 or more people. That said, masks remain recommended for people at high risk of serious illness, for anyone with symptoms, and in crowded places. And they are still mandatory indoors and on public transportation.
April 18—11:30pm—Social distancing measures lifted, masks still required
Deaths: 238 | Severely ill: 983 | Hospitalized: 1,126 | New cases: 138,891
(Seven-day averages as reported on Apr 17, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
As expected, the government announced last Friday that all social distancing measures, except the mask mandate, would be lifted from today. The number of new cases has been consistently falling since March, and the numbers of deaths and severely ill patients are also decreasing, albeit slowly. So all limits to private gatherings and business hours have been removed, at least until another potent variant or new contagion arrives.
Consuming food in theaters, religious facilities, and on public transport will also be allowed from next Monday, April 25. Businesses therefore have a week to prepare their systems and protocols to ensure people eat quietly, without talking, in well-ventilated spaces. Residents and staff in nursing homes and assisted living facilities must still abide by certain restrictions, such as limits to outings and the number of visitors permitted. Masks should still be worn indoors, and also outdoors when it is not possible to maintain a two-meter distance from others. The outdoor mask mandate will be reviewed again in two weeks’ time if cases continue to decrease.
Last Friday’s briefing also included details of the government’s post-Omicron response plan to be implemented from June 1. One item on the plan is the removal of the quarantine requirement for overseas arrivals who have been vaccinated, regardless of their country of origin. All arrivals will be required to take only two PCR tests—one before departure and another on their day of arrival—no longer requiring a third test six to seven days after arrival. Unvaccinated arrivals will still have to quarantine.
Another change is that Covid-19, which is now mostly due to the Omicron variant, will be classified as a class 2 contagious disease. This means that identified cases should be reported to public health officials within 24 hours, rather than immediately. And four weeks from now, quarantine for identified cases will simply be a recommendation, no longer obligatory.
April 11—5pm—Decreasing case numbers, easing of restrictions looking likely
Deaths: 312 | Severely ill: 1,111 | Hospitalized: 1,405 | New cases: 208,531
(Seven-day averages as reported on Apr 10, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The daily tally of new cases continues to decrease while the numbers of deaths and severely ill patients also now seem to have reached a plateau and are no longer rising. Since the first recorded infection in January 2020, South Korea has identified 15,333,670 accumulated cases, which is about a third of the entire population. The majority of these cases are from the most recent few months of the Omicron variant.
The next announcement on social distancing will be made at the KDCA briefing on Friday. It is looking more and more likely that restrictions will be significantly eased from next week.
April 4—7:30pm—Mask-free outdoors in two weeks?
Deaths: 333 | Severely ill: 1,242 | Hospitalized: 1,641 | New cases: 294,101
(Seven-day averages as reported on Apr 3, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Friday, April 1, the government announced a further easing of social distancing measures, allowing up to ten people to attend private gatherings and letting businesses stay open until midnight. These measures will be effective from today until April 17.
Daily new cases have been slowly declining since last week, but deaths, which tend to lag behind case numbers, are expected to keep rising for two more weeks, and the new BA.2 strand of the Omicron variant may again cause a rise in infections. There have been continuing demands, however, from small businesses and the tourism industry to eliminate all restrictions, so the government’s decision was to compromise once again with another incremental step towards normality.
The announcement came with promises of further easing or even the elimination of all restrictions in two weeks’ time, as long as the number of cases continues to decline and hospitals remain capable of handling the number of severely ill patients. That would mean no limits on business hours, private gatherings, or large-scale events, and no more outdoor mask mandate. Masks would still be required indoors.