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[Newsmaker] S. Koreans urged to wear masks or face new fine

Seoul city officials carry signs urging citizens to wear a face mask in downtown Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Seoul city officials carry signs urging citizens to wear a face mask in downtown Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
South Koreans taking the bus or subway to work Friday morning were greeted by public officials warning them of a 100,000 won ($90) fine should they fail to wear a mask in public.

In a country that has received widespread praise for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, most people were already wearing a mask and did not need to be told to do so.

But for the few who chose not to wear a mask, or did not put it on properly, the officials were there to remind them of a new law that would make them pay starting Friday.

"Please wear a mask," chanted the workers who were sent from the Seoul city government and Seoul Metro to meet the commuters at Gwanghwamun Station, one of the busiest subway stops in downtown Seoul.

Wearing sashes and carrying signs, the workers handed out fliers and masks to the passengers. Other officials in blue vests stood by the ticket gates to watch for any potential offenders.

One woman complained that wearing a mask has given her heart problems and other difficulties.

"They should govern the country properly, and let the people remove their masks, not issue fines," she said of the officials.

The government has said it will impose a fine of up to 100,000 won only if a person ignores a public official's request to wear a mask.

Exceptions will also be made for children under the age of 14 and those who are not able to wear a mask on their own or due to medical conditions.

Moreover, masks are not required in certain situations, such as when eating or drinking, inside pools or public baths or when undergoing an ID check. Walks in the park, cycling and mountain climbing are also allowed without masks on if people remain at least 2 meters apart.

Around the same time at a bus stop in downtown Seoul, about a dozen city officials lined both sides of the road and gave out fliers and masks to passengers getting off buses.

Bus riders mostly kept their masks on, but a few pedestrians could be seen walking without a mask.

An official approached a man riding a bike without wearing a mask, and he quickly took one out of his pocket.

Another man was wearing a mask under his nose, and when approached by officials, he explained that he had only taken it down to eat.

"I think that if there are more cases of people not wearing a mask, the fine should be raised and enforcement strengthened so as to make everyone more alert," said a 36-year-old Seoul citizen surnamed Kim.

The fine is already higher for business owners and managers who fail to properly inform customers of the new rule. A first offense is punishable by up to 1.5 million won, and a second offense by up to 3 million won.

Some business owners said they feared losing patrons at a time when sales are already suffering due to the pandemic.

One customer at a swimming pool in Cheongju, 137 kilometers south of Seoul, complained that the mask mandate made no sense in the changing room.

"How am I supposed to put on a mask when I'm still dripping water from the shower?" the man in his 70s said.

At a nearby public bathhouse, staff and customers alike said they were confused because they had not received any guidelines.

"If I had known about the new rules, I would have prepared some plastic bags for customers to keep their masks in," the bathhouse owner said. "We already have at least 80 percent fewer customers because of COVID-19, and now if they force us to wear masks, we're going to see even less business."

At an internet cafe in the southeastern port city of Busan, the business owner in his 50s said he did not know where to draw the line. Eating is permitted at internet cafes in the city.

"If you watch people who come to play games, they're holding chopsticks and tapping the keyboard at the same time. That's how quickly they eat," he said. "How am I, as the owner, supposed to tell customers like these to put on their masks properly?" (Yonhap)

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