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Korea will lift all COVID-19 social distancing rules, except a mask mandate, next week, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday, marking the first time all

restrictions have been lifted since the pandemic began two years ago.

Starting Monday, restaurants, cafes, and other small businesses will be able to operate freely without a curfew, while the limit on the size of private gatherings will be removed, Kim said during a COVID-19 response meeting.

Currently, such businesses are allowed to open until midnight, and private gatherings are capped at 10 people.

“The omicron has shown signs of weakening significantly after peaking in the third week of March,” Kim said. “As the virus situation is stabilized and capabilities of our medical system are confirmed, the government decided to boldly lift social distancing measures.”

The mask mandate, however, will be kept for now, as the government monitors the trend in COVID-19 infections over the next two weeks, Kim said.

“Indoor mask-wearing will be unavoidable for a considerable time,” Kim said. “With regard to outdoor mask-wearing, which poses a relatively lower risk, we will decide after two weeks based on a review of the virus situation.”

Korea first introduced social distancing measures in March 2020, starting with a recommendation to suspend operations in religious facilities and select businesses.

In January 2021, the government imposed a five-person limit on private gatherings nationwide before tightening the restrictions further to include a two-person cap on gatherings at nighttime and takeout only at cafes.

Under a “phased return to normal” scheme, the government had relaxed distancing rules last November but later rolled them back as case numbers soared (Yonhap)