South Korea to lift most COVID-19 restrictions next week

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SEOUL, April 15 (UPI) — South Korean officials announced Friday that the country would lift all COVID-19 social distancing regulations next week, except for mask requirements, as an Omicron-driven wave of cases continues to wane.

Starting Monday, bars, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to operate without a curfew and a limit on private gathering sizes will be removed, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said at a COVID-19 response meeting.

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Other restrictions such as a 299-person limit on group events and rallies and a 70% capacity for religious services will also be lifted Monday.

It will mark the first time South Korea has been without social distancing limitations in over two years.

The country has seen a surge of cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant over the first months of this year, which peaked with a record high of more than 600,000 infections on March 17. However, cases have been on a steady downward trajectory over recent weeks, and authorities said Friday that South Korea is ready to move into a post-pandemic phase.

“The momentum of Omicron has been weakening significantly after peaking in the third week of March,” Kim said. “As the quarantine situation is stabilized and the medical system capacity is confirmed, the government intends to boldly lift social distancing measures.”

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Currently, facilities are required to close at midnight and groups are limited to ten people. At the height of restrictions, groups were limited to two people, restaurants had to close by 9 p.m. and cafes were only allowed to offer takeout service.

Mask-wearing, which has been mandated and almost universally followed in South Korea throughout the course of the pandemic, will remain in place and be reviewed after two weeks, Kim said.

“Wearing a mask indoors will be unavoidable for a considerable period of time,” he said. “Regarding the relatively low risk of wearing a mask outdoors, after two weeks we will evaluate the virus situation and make a decision.”

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Friday that it will lift the mandatory quarantine period of seven days for infected patients at the end of the next month, after downgrading COVID-19 one notch on its four-tier infectious disease scale.

Fully vaccinated inbound travelers with a negative PCR test have been allowed to enter South Korea without quarantine since April 1.

For much of the pandemic, South Korea used a highly centralized “3T” model — test, trace and treat — to minimize infection rates and contain severe illness and death. However, as the less severe Omicron variant became the dominant strain, officials eased restrictions in order to preserve hospital bed capacity and limit disruptions to the economy.

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The country has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with almost 87% of the population fully vaccinated and 64% having received a booster dose. On Thursday, people aged 60 and above became eligible for a second booster dose.

On Friday, South Korea reported 125,846 new COVID-19 infections, continuing a steady decline since last month’s peak.