Asia Today: South Korea to require masks on transit, flights

BANGKOK (AP) — South Koreans will be required to wear masks when using public transportation and taxis nationwide starting Tuesday as health authorities look for more ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus as people increase their public activities.

Health Ministry official Yoon Taeho during a virus briefing on Monday said masks also will be enforced on all domestic and international flights from Wednesday. From June, owners of “high-risk” facilities such as bars, clubs, gyms, karaoke rooms and concert halls will be required to use smartphone QR codes to register customers so they could be tracked down more easily when infections occur.

South Korea was reporting 500 new cases per day in early March before it largely stabilized its outbreak with aggressive tracking and testing. But infections have been rising slightly again since early May, with more people going out during warmer weather and eased social distancing guidelines, causing concern in a country that has just started to reopen schools for children.

“Until treatments and vaccines are developed, we will never know when the COVID-19 crisis could end, and until then we will have to learn how to live with COVID-19,” Yoon said.

It will be up to bus drivers and subway station workers to enforce masks on public transportation, while taxi drivers will be allowed to refuse passengers who aren’t wearing masks. Customers who refuse to download QR codes at entertainment venues will have to handwrite their personal information instead.

South Korea has so far reported 11,206 COVID-19 cases, including 267 fatalities. The recent increase in infections has been centered around the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where more than 200 cases were linked to nightclubs and other entertainment venues.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— MORE AUSTRALIANS BACK IN SCHOOL: Students in two more Australian states returned to school full-time as numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country fall. New South Wales and Queensland states joined the less populous Western Australia and South Australia states and the Northern Territory in resuming face-to-face learning instead of studying from home online. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said students and teachers should stay home if they are sick, noting “We’re not out of the woods yet." New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said school absences appeared to be higher than normal. Australia's remaining jurisdictions — Victoria and Tasmania states and the Australian Capital Territory — plan to send students back to school in stages through early June.

— JAPAN TO EASE EMERGENCY: Japan is set to remove a coronavirus state of emergency from Tokyo and four other remaining prefectures, entirely ending the measure that began nearly eight weeks ago. “It appears the measure is no longer needed in all of the prefectures,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said at a virus task force meeting. Experts approved the plan, clearing the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to announce it later Monday. Japan's emergency was softer than the lockdowns imposed in many countries and requested rather than required shutting businesses and staying home. But those measures as well as mask-wearing and social distancing have slowed infections and eased pressure on Japan's medical systems. Japan has 16,580 confirmed cases and 830 deaths, according to the health ministry.

— FIJI AIRWAYS LAYOFFS: Fiji’s national airline is laying off more than 750 staff, about half of its workforce, as it struggles for survival. Remaining employees will have their pay reduced by 20% and only get paid for the days they work. CEO Andre Viljoen said the company was negotiating with lenders and aircraft lessors for payment deferrals. He said Fiji Airways expected to receive almost zero revenue over the coming months due to the coronavirus pandemic causing international flights to be cancelled. He said the company had a responsibility to shareholders and to the people of Fiji to survive the crisis.

— NEW ZEALAND TO ALLOW CROWDS: New Zealand plans to further loosen its coronavirus restrictions by increasing the maximum size of gatherings from 10 people to 100. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the change would take effect from midday Friday. The timing is designed, in part, to allow religious services to proceed that day and over the weekend. New Zealand has reported just one new case of coronavirus over the past week. Ardern attributed that success to a strict early lockdown and people’s ongoing vigilance. “We are still in a global pandemic,” Ardern said. “Cases continue to grow overseas, and we still do have people coming home. But for the most part, many aspects of life can and should feel much more normal.”

— CHINA HAS 11 NEW CASES: China reported 11 new infections, all of them brought from outside the country. Ten of them were on a flight arriving in the vast Inner Mongolia region, according to the National Health Commission. China has recorded a total of 4,634 deaths among 82,985 cases of the virus that was first detected in the central Chinese industrial city of Wuhan late last year. The latest figures come as China holds the annual session of its ceremonial parliament, part of efforts to show the country is returning to normal and shaking off the devastating economic impact of the pandemic.

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