South Korea introduces mask mandate in COVID-19 fight

SEOUL, Oct. 13 (UPI) — South Korean health authorities issued a new order that makes wearing face masks mandatory in high-risk areas including public transportation, hospitals, long-term care facilities and mass rallies, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced Tuesday.

Individual violators of the rule will face fines of up to $87, while operators of facilities and organizers of rallies who fail to enforce the mandate can be hit with fines of $2,600 and could face closure.

The new regulations went into effect on Tuesday, but a grace period of one month will be in effect before the fines are implemented, the KDCA said.

The announcement comes a day after South Korea eased its social distancing guidelines from Level 2 to Level 1 on its three-tier scale as the country has managed to drive down infections from a widespread outbreak that began in August.

High-risk venues that had been shut down, such as nightclubs, karaoke rooms, gyms, buffet restaurants and cram schools were allowed to reopen on Monday, although they are still required to follow distancing guidelines and keep entry logs.

Churches in the Seoul area, which had been a major source of the August outbreak, were also allowed to resume in-person services with a 30% capacity limit.

Professional sports leagues, including baseball and soccer, are allowed to reintroduce fans at 30% of seating capacity, while limits on gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors were lifted.

South Korea, like many other Asian countries, has already seen widespread face mask usage since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials have consistently stressed the use of face coverings as a protective measure against the spread of the virus.

Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of the KDCA, on Tuesday praised the sense of responsibility among the South Korean public in fighting the pandemic.

“Many countries in Europe and in North America are going back to severe lockdowns and also intensifying their penalties,” he said at a press briefing. “In South Korea, we are based on solidarity, credibility and trust in officials and each other and we have been able to contain the virus to a large extent.”

South Korea did see a rise in new cases on Tuesday, reaching triple digits for the first time in six days with 102 new infections reported, including 33 coming from overseas arrivals.

The country experienced an outbreak in mid-August tied to a conservative Christian church in northern Seoul and a large anti-government rally. New daily cases reached a peak of 441 in late August and stayed in the triple digits until Sep. 20.

The total caseload in South Korea rose to 24,805 on Tuesday, the KDCA announced, while total deaths increased by one to 434.

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