South Korea said Friday it will lift its outdoor mask mandate next week in response to a steady drop in COVID-19 cases after an omicron-fueled surge.
The announcement comes after Seoul dropped almost all other social-distancing measures earlier this month, ending two years of strict requirements that put a massive strain on the country's small businesses.
From Monday, residents will no longer be required to wear face masks outdoors unless attending an event with more than 50 participants, health authorities said.
"As social-distancing measures are lifted and the mask mandate is being adjusted, people are increasingly returning to their normal lives," Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), told reporters.
"This is all thanks to the patience and cooperation of the people over a long period of time," Jeong added.
South Korea's incoming administration, headed by conservative president-elect Yoon Suk-y, on Friday criticized the decision to end the mask mandate as "premature,” questioning if it had been based solely on "virus prevention measures."
Ahn Cheol-soo, chief of Yoon's transition team, had previously said the new government planned to make a decision on the mandate in May.
South Korea reported 50,568 new coronavirus cases Friday, well down from the peak of more than 620,000 a day in mid-March.
The KDCA's Jeong said there had been a "steady decrease" in COVID-19 cases for the past six weeks.
"The number of new critically ill patients is also decreasing," she said, adding hospitals had enough beds to treat new inpatients.
More than 86% of South Korea's 51 million people have been fully vaccinated, with the majority also receiving a booster shot.
About 22,700 people in the country have died from the coronavirus -- a 0.13% fatality rate, one of the world's lowest.