South Korea said on Friday it will lift an outdoor face mask mandate next week in the country's latest step to ease Covid-19 restrictions, despite opposition from the incoming government which labelled the decision "premature".
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the decision was made as the government could "no longer look away" from the inconveniences experienced by its citizens when the country's virus situation was stabilising.
People are still required to wear masks at events with 50 attendants or more, such as at rallies, concerts and sports stadiums, Kim said.
South Korea reported 50,568 new coronavirus cases on Friday, well down from the peak of more than 620,000 a day in mid-March.
The decision came just days ahead of newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol's inauguration on 10 May and despite his team's opposition, prompting them to immediately express regrets and concerns over the announcement.
"The transition team agrees with pushing for the lifting of mask-wearing mandate as part of efforts to return to normal life, but we have stressed multiple times that removing the outdoor mask mandate at this point would be premature," a spokesperson for Yoon's team, Hong Kyung-hee, told a briefing.
Ahn Cheol-soo, the head of Yoon's transition team, had said earlier this week that the new government will consider going mask-free outdoors around end-May.
South Korea has already scrapped most of its pandemic-related precautions, including a midnight curfew on restaurants and other businesses.
The country has largely managed to limit deaths and critical cases through widespread vaccination, and it has scaled back the aggressive tracing and containment efforts that made it a mitigation success story from most of the first two years of the pandemic.
Nearly 87% of South Korea's 52 million population are fully vaccinated, with 65% having also had a booster, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency data.