A local government’s independent push for lifting indoor mask mandates as early as January next year has reignited a debate about mandatory masking, while authorities and experts remain divided on the issue.
According to the national quarantine authorities on Dec. 4, the municipal government of Daejeon notified the government headquarters for COVID-19 response with the following message: “If the government does not lift the indoor mask mandates by Dec. 15, the Daejeon government will release it independently.”
The city said most citizens are already taking off their masks at restaurants and cafes, making the indoor mask mandate meaningless. It also emphasized that masks hinder children’s emotional and language development.
This is the first time that a local government has officially expressed opposition against the central government regarding mask mandates. An official from the headquarters confirmed that Daejeon government is the only local municipality that has made inquiries about the indoor mask policy.
Emphasizing the importance of a quarantine network under a single command system, the headquarters said it will keep consulting with the Daejeon government regarding the matter.
"The lifting of the indoor masks obligation will be implemented through a decision by the headquarters after thorough discussions," said the headquarters on Dec. 2.
The government is maintaining the position that more consideration is necessary, saying it will consider removing the indoor mask mandate after winter. On Oct. 31, professor Jung Ki-seok, the head of the COVID-19 Special Response Team, suggested that the indoor mask mandate could be lifted “next spring” on the premise that "a completely new mutation” does not appear.
Although the Daejeon government has set Dec. 15 as the deadline, any changes to the indoor mask mandate are unlikely to be made by then, as a debate between experts hosted by the quarantine authorities is scheduled on the same day. The quarantine authorities plan to collect opinions from experts through two debate sessions and finalize a decision on the matter after a meeting of the advisory committee.
It remains unknown whether the central government will be able to put the brakes on the Daejeon government’s arbitrary decision if it really violates indoor mask obligations.
Meanwhile, experts expressed concerns, saying quarantine measures should be managed by a single central authority. However, some also suggested that it would be desirable for the government’s quarantine policy to shift from imposing legal obligations on masking to making recommendations.
"It is true that each local government has the authority to decide on quarantine measures, but we need to consider whether we are prepared for such independent measures," said Dr. Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease professor at Gachon University Medical Center.
As the number of patients may increase in December to January due to the outbreak of respiratory infectious diseases other than COVID-19, Eom said he fears that lifting the indoor mask mandate might be an overly hasty decision.
"It is reasonable for local governments to keep pace with the decisions of the central quarantine headquarters,” Eom added. Local governments should fully discuss the issue with local medical institutions, as they would be the ones having to deal with any consequences should the situation worsen after lifting indoor masking, he added.
Dr. Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University, agreed that a single command system is appropriate for the pandemic situation. However, he noted that shifting quarantine policies from legal obligations to recommendations seems desirable.
Major European countries and the United States have mostly lifted indoor mask mandates. Some cities such as Los Angeles -- which has seen a sudden spike in confirmed cases -- are considering reviving the mandates.