S. Korea removes most virus restrictions as omicron slows down

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will lift most pandemic restrictions, including restrictions on indoor gatherings, as it slowly spirals out of an omicron outbreak that officials say is stabilizing.

People are still required to wear masks indoors, but authorities could lift a mask mandate outdoors if the coronavirus slows further over the next two weeks, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said in a government briefing on Friday.

Starting next week, authorities will lift a 10-person limit for private social gatherings and lift a midnight curfew at restaurants, cafes and other indoor businesses. Officials will also lift a ban on large political rallies and other events involving 300 people or more.

People will be allowed to eat in cinemas, places of worship, bus stations and train stations from April 25.

The new measures were announced as the country reported 125,846 new cases of the coronavirus, continuing a week-long downward trend after infections peaked in mid-March. The country’s daily record was 621,187 on March 17.

While health workers reported 264 virus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, more than half of the country’s 2,800 COVID-19 intensive care units remained available.

Pleading for people to remain vigilant about the virus, Kwon said officials will be forced to tighten social distancing again if the pandemic brings another major wave of infections.

He said it has become difficult to extend social distancing rules given the fatigue and frustration of people with extended restrictions and the toll on the service sector economy. Social distancing measures have become less effective as a means of slowing transmission because Omicron was so much more contagious than previous variants of the virus, said Son Youngrae, another health ministry official.

Omicron has forced South Korea to abandon a stringent COVID-19 response based on mass lab testing, aggressive contact tracing and quarantines to focus limited medical resources on high-risk groups, including those aged 60 and over and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Beginning in late May, officials will lift the mandatory seven-day quarantine period for COVID-19 patients and allow them to be treated like other illnesses at hospitals and local clinics.

The country had already eased quarantine restrictions and stopped requiring adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests when entering potentially crowded spaces like restaurants, allowing more public and health workers to respond to the rapidly expanding at-home treatments. More than 900,000 virus patients have been asked to isolate at home to save hospital space.

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